Curiosity makes tantalizing discovery in Mars soil

Self-portrait of the Curiosity Rover at the sand ripple where it used its robotic arm to dig up five scoopfuls of soil. The “bite marks” are seen in the foreground. Samples from three of the scoops were analyzed by SAM. Click for large version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity has turned up something very curious in the Martian soil that mission scientists are dying to share with the world but can’t until whatever-it-is is confirmed. The discovery was made by the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars instrument or SAM. SAM is the rover’s mini-chemistry lab capable of identifying organic or carbon-containing compounds in Martian soil and air.

“This data is gonna be one for the history books,” Curiosity chief scientist John Grotzinger told MPR this week. Grotzinger confirmed to SPACE.com that the news will be revealed at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, which takes place Dec. 3-7 in San Francisco.

John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project scientist,  holds up a model of  Curiosity at a press conference at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum on July 22, 2011. Credit: NASA/Carla Cioffi

Before the Internet conspiracy theorists get to work, consider the nature of discovery. Especially a big one. The last thing you want to do is shout it to the world before you’re absolutely sure you’re right. If you do do and are later proven wrong, humiliation and damage to your reputation follow. Not to mention the long climb back to being taken seriously again.

Scientists are rightfully being cautious about the results. After all, Grotzinger and colleagues were nearly burned earlier this month when SAM apparently found methane in Mars air. Here on Earth the gas is connected to living organisms, and while methane’s has been detected on Mars from orbit, it may or may not be related to life. Grotzinger held up the results until further tests could be done to determine if a noseful of earthly methane from the state of Florida had gone along for the ride to Mars. Further tests showed no methane in the sample.

Caution is the way of good science; it will make the forthcoming announcement that much more exciting. I can’t wait.

Dwarf planet Makemake is currently 4.8 billion miles from the sun and takes 310 years to orbit it compared to 248 years for Pluto. The average temperature on this deep-freeze world is 405 below zero F. Credit: ESO/ L. Calcada

In other news, astronomers have used three telescopes at the European Southern Observatory’s mountaintop facility in Chile to observe the dwarf planet Makemake (MAH-kay MAH-kay) pass in front of a star. As the 870-mile-diameter icy asteroid blocked the star, astronomers hoped to see gradual dimming of the star’s light. If Makemake had an atmosphere, starlight passing along its edge would gradually fade as it penetrated through ever thicker air before disappearing behind the the solid disk. Instead, the star abruptly disappeared and then reappear seconds later – sure signs that the dwarf planet lacks a significant atmosphere unlike its relative Pluto, which is surrounded by a thin envelope of nitrogen and methane.

Makemake photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope. It’s one of thousands of icy asteroids / dwarf planets in the outer asteroid belt beyond Neptune called the Kuiper Belt. Makemake is the creator of humanity and god of fertility in the myths of the native people of Easter Island. Credit: NASA/ESA

Astronomers want to know as much as they can about impossibly distant worlds like Makemake. Rare stellar occultations – when nearby solar system bodies block the light of distant stars – are an important tool to probe an object’s atmosphere, determine an accurate size and shape and from that data its density and how reflective it is.

Thanks to the recent stellar passage, we know Makemake’s surface reflects light similar to dirty snow, making it slightly brighter than Pluto. It’s also shaped like a slightly squashed sphere. Makemake is one of five dwarf planets, a category of large, asteroid-like solar system bodies recently created by the International Astronomical Union. The others are Pluto, Ceres, Haumea and Eris.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

10 thoughts on “Curiosity makes tantalizing discovery in Mars soil

  1. This is exciting Bob, can’t wait for the results it sure sounds as if it is something truely amazing.
    As for the internet conspiracy theorists, it is just as well people can come to your blog and get real and truthful information as I know you will be quick in putting it on when we find out. Excited :-)

  2. Maybe you could be right, but the suspense is overwhelming, I wish they would just have told us the day, that would of been good, but re-writing the history books if that happens it will be a shocking and amazing story, and one that no- One will forget, I can’ t wait, but I hope your right Bob as if you are I’m sure you will have a smile from where you are all the way to where I am in Scotland you would deserve a pat on the back for that, but like everyone else we will just have to wait for the news :-)

  3. Happy Thanksgivig, Bob. As I am eating breakfast and looking out the window to the east, Venus is quite obvious. But it is the little, faint star below and to the left that is exciting as I just got my first view of Saturn returning.

    Jim

  4. Thanx for forwarding these exciting news. It’s stressing waiting for the confirm but better this than a disappointment, as when it seemed she sniffed methane but that was later excluded.
    If this news was really “rewriting history” it could be the discovery that Earth’s life, or some basic life component, didn’t form here but on Mars or somewhere else.
    But as far as I understand, Grotzinger said just “one for history books” as meaning “something big”. So it may well be “just” the finding of complex carbon compounds as traces of past microbes. You probably saw that post by FB page of Curiosity <> which could mean anything, also a minimization, in sense that, since there’s still no confirmation, MSL mission is already in itself historical, because of the complex landing, the instruments and the contribution to prepare a human mission. Meanwhile it’s amusing to read the many ironical reaction of people to these “half news”, saying that the discovery may be a monolith, a human skeleton, an empty coke bottle, a nazi flying saucer or an X-Wing…

    • PS I think my quote signs were interpreted as an html command, so the quotation of the Curiosity FB post disappeared. Here it is:
      – What did I discover on Mars? That rumors spread fast online. My team considers this whole mission “one for the history books.” –

  5. NASA at last made a statement: after weeks of careful analysis, there’s no evidence of organic compounds in these samples.
    After Grotzinger’s words of weeks ago, this is somehow disappointing. But let’s take the positive sides: as NASA say, this is just one sample site and the beginning of a 2 year mission.
    And if Martian microbes are absent, a human mission would have no risk of contamination, in both directions.

  6. Post scriptum: What I’d like to know, is if this excludes also signs of *past* life, at least regarding the sample site in question.

    • Giorgio,
      Yes, I’m planning something on this today. I would think it would exclude evidence of past life in that particular sample because again, they’d be looking for organics.

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