Keeping mum about SAM…

If you detected a disturbance in the Force earlier today, here’s why. It was the Internet – specifically the space communities on the internet – lighting up like a Christmas tree sat in an electric chair, after John Grotzinger, the head MSL scientist, gave an interview to a journalist on NPR (National Public Radio) and said this…

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.

Oh boy. Here we go. Usually all it takes is the vaguest hint of a whiff of a rumour of Something Interesting having been found on Mars and the net goes absolutely nuts, every forum (except UMSF), every Mars blog, every popular science site suddenly goes into “Life found on Mars! I TOLD you!!!” spasms, but this time we have an actual head scientist openly ADMITTING they’ve found something amazing, something that is big news, but not revealing just what it is.

What COULD it be? Well, it’s not *that* hard to put the pieces of this puzzle together and come up with a rough idea of what’s going on, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to come up with a theory. SAM is the rover’s onboard laboratory, that basically eats martian dirt, chews it up, and sees what it’s made of. And MSL has gone to Mars not to look for life itself, as many still think, but to test the martian dirt for chemical evidence that Mars might once have been habitable. Some martian dirt was recently gobbled up by SAM, and tested, as planned. And the analysis has revealed something that’s got the team mega excited, but it’s potentially such big news that they have to be extremely careful before saying anything, and will have to be absolutely, totally sure about their analysis before telling us.

Which is fair enough; it’s really not a good idea to jump the gun in these situations, unless you want to end up with a rather large dollop of scientific egg on your face. No, we’ll all just have to be patient, and wait and see what the news is. I’m sure that won’t be a problem, right?

Yeah, right!!!!!!!! Hahahahahahaha!!!!!!!!

No. What will happen now is that web speculation is going to go absolutely freaking inSANE. Soon everyone will have their own theory, their own idea, their own “inside info”, and until the news is actually released officially by the MSL team it’s just going to be a feeding frenzy of rumour and guesses. Every little thing the MSL team says will be jumped on and analysed to death, by people desperate to know what’s going on, desperate to get the scoop on the story.

And what might the Big News be? Well, there are really only two possibilities: SAM either found Nothing Special or Something Special in its bellyful of dirt after it had finished chewing, and I’m pretty sure that a savvy, streetwise, naturally cautious scientist like Grotzinger wouldn’t be flinging around terms like “Earth-shaking” and talking about the “history books” if SAM had found nothing. No, they found something alright, and it must be related to MSL’s quest for organics on Mars. And it must be somethng positive.

(Above: the SAM laboratory carried by Curiosity, image from Astrobiology magazine)

So, let’s just jump in and assume MSL has found traces of organics in its dust sample. That, all on its own, would be pretty amazing news, as previous missions have failed miserably to do that, and the detection of organics on Mars makes the possibility of live having once existed there a lot greater. After all, as Nancy Atkinson put it so brilliantly and accurately in her post on this subject for Universe Today, “Life as we know it cannot exist without organic molecules; however they can exist without life.”. So this story is, essentially, about the story of the quest to discover life, past or present, on Mars. And a whole new chapter might be about to be written in that story.

BUT… hang on a minute… organics found by MSL might not be native, tests might suggest they were brought to Mars by meteorites, what about that idea? Well, that would still be pretty big news because it would show that organics, wherever they’re from, can survive *on* Mars, meaning its environment might not be as deadly to life, and the stuff of life, as previously thought. And that would be very cool too.

But when will we know? Well, the NPR story says:

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.

Now that is a direct challenge to science bloggers and journalists if ever I heard one!

Several weeks? Not a chance. I give it a week at most. Even though it’s run off to hide behind the sofa, and won’t be lured out, the cat is well and truly out of the bag now, and it’s going to be a race between word leaking out from the MSL team itself and an enterprising astronomy blogger ferreting out the truth and breaking it to the world, forcing NASA to hastily arrange a media conference and press briefing so they can announce the discovery properly and accurately, and ensure that the scientists behind it are given due credit and their well-deserved moment in the spotlight.

Several weeks? Naah. We’ll know by December, you’ll see.

Mars hates giving up its secrets, we all know that. But I think one has escaped. We’ll know which one  soon.

Read more about SAM here…

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