Big News From Mars? Rover Scientists Mum For Now
Scientists working on NASA’s six-wheeled rover on Mars have a problem. But it’s a good problem.
They have some exciting new results from one of the rover’s instruments. On the one hand, they’d like to tell everybody what they found, but on the other, they have to wait because they want to make sure their results are not just some fluke or error in their instrument.
The exciting results are coming from an instrument in the rover called SAM. “We’re getting data from SAM as we sit here and speak, and the data looks really interesting,” John Grotzinger, the principal investigator for the rover mission, says during my visit last week to his office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. That’s where data from SAM first arrive on Earth. “The science team is busily chewing away on it as it comes down,” says Grotzinger.
SAM is a kind of miniature chemistry lab. Put a sample of Martian soil or rock or even air inside SAM, and it will tell you what the sample is made of.
Grotzinger says they recently put a soil sample in SAM, and the analysis shows something earthshaking. “This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good,” he says.
So why doesn’t Grotzinger want to share his exciting news? The main reason is caution. Grotzinger and his team were almost stung once before. When SAM analyzed an air sample, it looked like there was methane in it, and at least here on Earth, some methane comes from living organisms.
But Grotzinger says they held up announcing the finding because they wanted to be sure they were measuring Martian air, and not air brought along from the rover’s launchpad at Cape Canaveral.
“We knew from the very beginning that we had this risk of having brought air from Florida. And we needed to diminish it and then make the measurement again,” he says. And when they made the measurement again, the signs of methane disappeared.
Grotzinger says it will take several weeks before he and his team are ready to talk about their latest finding. In the meantime he’ll fend off requests from pesky reporters, and probably from NASA brass as well. Like any big institution, NASA would love to trumpet a major finding, especially at a time when budget decisions are being made. Nothing succeeds like success, as the saying goes.
For now, though, we’ll have to wait to see what’s got Mars rover scientists itching to say what they found.