Curiosity’s history-making discovery a big misunderstanding

Bite mark left in the sand dune after Curiosity retrieved soil sample. It’s similar to lava rock found in Hawaii and contains feldspar, pyroxene and olivine. Other materials found in the sample will be revealed next week. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Do you want the good news or bad news first? OK, the bad news. Remember when we learned last week that Curiosity had made a “history changing” discovery in a Martian soil sample? Many of us speculated that the rover had detected the first organic, carbon-containing compounds on Mars.

Well, it turns out it was just a big misunderstanding between the MPR reporter and Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project scientist John Grotzinger. During the original interview, Grotzinger explained to reporter Joe Palca that Curiosity had analyzed the first soil sample in its Sample Analysis at Mars instrument. While SAM can detect organics, Grotzinger’s reference to the discovery being “one for the history books” was actually a reference to the entire Mars mission, not a specific finding.

Panoramic view of Curiosity’s digs at the Rocknest site in Gale Crater on Mars. One barren-looking landscape! The photo is a composite of images taken in October and November. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech

Somehow the NPR reporter misinterpreted the excitement surrounding the first soil analysis with Grotzinger’s description of the mission as history-making. Each thought the other was talking about a different thing. Indeed at the time of the interview, the first sample had only begun to be analyzed, so NASA scientists wouldn’t have even known the details of its chemical contents. Results, described as “interesting” rather than earth-shaking, will be presented next week at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. More on the topic HERE.

Since it’s still very early in the mission, we shouldn’t be too bothered if some sort of Holy Grail moment has yet to happen. Look at what Curiosity’s found so far – an ancient stream bed filled with water-rounded cobbles, layered buttes of sedimentary rock like a postcard from the Grand Canyon and a most amazing assortment of wind-sculpted rocks. And don’t forget – we got there in the first place and Curiosity couldn’t be healthier.

Does anyone doubt that handfuls of history-making discoveries lie ahead? My only frustration is that NASA didn’t attempt to correct the misunderstanding sooner through one of its many press releases.

View of Mercury’s north pole seen from above. Red denotes areas of permanent shadow as seen by the MESSENGER probe to date. The polar ice deposits imaged by Earth-based radar are in yellow. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington/National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, Arecibo Observatory

Now for the good news. Mercury, a planet with a surface temperature hot enough to melt lead has been confirmed by MESSENGER probe to have ice deposits in its polar regions. What the heck? Given that it’s the closest planet to the sun, you’d think it an unlikely place for ice, but the little planet’s axis is tipped less than one degree, so areas around its poles are never exposed to sunlight. Since Mercury has no substantial atmosphere to capture and distribute heat, its surface temperature ranges from 800 degrees F in sunlight to 200 below in the polar regions.

While radio-bright areas likely due to ice have been detected from Earth by the giant Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico as long ago as 1991, new data from NASA’s orbiting MESSENGER spacecraft confirm that water ice is indeed present both exposed on the surface as well as buried beneath dark, tar-like deposits.

The probe uses neutron spectroscopy to measure hydrogen concentrations within Mercury’s radar-bright regions. Based on the amount of hydrogen seen, scientists can estimate the volume of water ice present, because water, or H2O, is two parts hydrogen.

“The new data indicate the water ice in Mercury’s polar regions, if spread over an area the size of Washington, D.C., would be more than 2 miles thick,” said David Lawrence, a MESSENGER participating scientist.

The dark material could be a mix of organic compounds delivered by carbon-rich comets and asteroids several billion years ago during the solar system’s youth. Astronomers believe that Earth was similarly enriched by water and organics. I like the connection, and I like that polar opposites – excuse the pun – find a home together on a most unlikely planet. To read more about the discovery, click HERE.

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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.

15 thoughts on “Curiosity’s history-making discovery a big misunderstanding

  1. Hi Bob
    What a disappointment that was after being so excited, but I have to agree with you, NASA should have said something sooner, knowing that people around the world would of been waiting on the news. But no doubt the conspiracy theorists will read something else into it, but thanks for letting us know :-)

    • Yes, Lynn, you may have heard that NASA attempted to update the comment with a Curiosity tweet, but it was far too vague to get the message across. A simple statement / clarification would have been much better.

  2. No it didn’t Bob as I certainly didn’t take it as that, never mind maybe something else will turn up one day, you never know, but it is amazing that they got there in the first place that’s what people have to remember, something i’m sure many people would never think it would happen. What’s your thoughts on human’s ever making it to Mars, do you think that will happen.

    • Lynn,
      I think people will eventually land on Mars – maybe a combined U.S.-European-India-China mission 20 years down the road after we’ve put a few asteroid missions under our collective belts.

  3. Well I will be an old aged pensioner by then, and as i’ m scared of flying there will be no chance of me making it to Mars :-) but jokes aside i’m sure it will be a triumph whoever makes it there, thanks Bob

  4. Misunderstanding with reporter.. no words..
    Yes as you say they could have made a press release to clarify. And that Facebook post was vague. As I wrote at the time, I felt it could mean that the “history” words referred to the whole mission, but it was vague. Possibly they waited for the complete analysis because, if it turned positive, they had to do yet another rectification. Another lesson from which learning to… Thanx for the quick update Bob.

    • Giorgio,
      Regarding the complete analysis, it’s possible they were thinking that, but with the word out and all over the Web and the final results of the analysis still days ahead, that would be unwise. It cuts into NASA’s credibility. So many conspiracy types are ever-ready to pounce on the agency, they should have been aware this could happen. They usually are careful about this, so I’m a little surprised.

  5. In most of the soil scoop picture the impression of the scene seems to look like the inverse of what has happened. A hole looks like a hill.
    Is that caused by the light material being on the surface? Something that is not common on earth

  6. Aloha Bob!
    Just a quick comment on Jim’s “hole looks like a hill” statement: This is something the scientists and engineers at NASA were extremely surprised and worried about when we sent astronauts to the moon. I was only 14 (almost 15) when the landing happened and remember watching a scientist from NASA sitting with Walter Cronkite discussing the phenomena of how our perception, the light from the sun and the depth and debris field of a crater can make something that is a hole look very much like it is a hill! In fact, even with the 2D black and white TV I was watching, they managed to demonstrate how this worked and showed a crater turning into a hill right before our eyes! I was absolutely spellbound and also a bit terrified for the men heading to the moon since they hadn’t landed as yet. I’ve always been amazed at how that works and it seems that even with lots and lots of light, it doesn’t make any difference. Our minds have an amazing capacity to fool itself. That’s why optical illusions are so much fun. As we now know, our minds have evolved to do things like this due to “survival instincts” that have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years.
    Now, back to the topic of the “non-historic” announcement. Even though this misunderstanding was disappointing, it still gave all of us the “fodder” for speculation as to “what it may or may not be”. I found all the interacting between everyone that was interested to be fascinating anyway and this wouldn’t have happened had it not been for this “misunderstanding”.
    It seems these “misunderstandings” are happening more and more with the press. I don’t know if it is due to the sensationalistic side of reporters nowadays or their wanting to be “the first” to get something groundbreaking out there (or a combination of both). What I find disturbing sometimes are reporters that make historical comments in their articles that are erroneous when they actually are employed by the very company whose responsibility it is to keep accurate records and historical data of such things. The errors are inexcusable in those cases and they only reason(s) they are made are because the person or persons that should have “fact checked” the article before its release didn’t do their job. It is a dangerous thing when this happens and depending on the subject matter involved it could literally create worldwide calamities. Journalists and all reporters should remember that their jobs aren’t simply to write concise and grammatically correct articles, they have to be accurate along with other responsibilities.
    Like I said earlier, in this case, it was a “happy mistake” and gave us all time to stop and think about what the possibilities were that could be awaiting us. I have a feeling something “historical” WILL come from our exploration of Mars. Our exploration of space has given the human race so much knowledge in so many fields/subjects already (a lot of it unrelated to “space” itself) and with accomplishments like Curiosity, we are probably learning something new every day. It’s just not groundbreaking or historic so we don’t hear about it for the time being. Wow, I could go on and on and probably already have over “replied”, sorry about that!
    Keep up the great work, Astro Bob!

    • Hi Wayne,
      Thanks for your considered reply and the story about Cronkite. I wasn’t aware of the depth demonstration though I tried to watch everything space-related in those days. I think we were willing to trust the source (and it was a very solid one) in the case of the Mars misunderstanding. Given how NASA did not release a clarification, the best thing would have been to call someone in their media office to confirm or elaborate. To be honest, that’s what our reporters at the newspaper I work for would have done. I should have done it myself, but again, I trusted the source.

  7. Bob, can you give the approximate scale of the panoramic image from Curiousity? How far away, and how big, are the dark ridges on the centre-right of the photo?

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