Last week, a NASA official reported that data from an instrument on the Mars Curiosity rover suggested a discovery that would be "earthshaking" and one "for the history" books. But now NASA is backpedaling on the story, and is assuring the public that the find is not "earthshaking", and is simply just "interesting."
It could be a case of NASA not wanting to jump the gun and overhype a discovery that will only disappoint people in the end. It's happened before. Nevertheless, the most current cause of excitement began when Curiosity mission lead scientist John Grotzninger began receiving data on his computer from the rover's on-board chemistry lab, called SAM, while he was with a reporter from National Public Radio. The instrument has been analyzing a Martian soil sample. Grotzninger told NPR:
"This data is going to be one for the history books. It's looking really good."
He would not reveal anything further, noting that it could still be several weeks while NASA scientists reviewed the data to make sure that it was not a mistake or something from earth that contaminated the instrument sample. Grotzninger's "one for the history books" comment was taken by many as meaning that SAM had found something suggesting evidence of life on Mars at some point in time.
SAM is designed to look for organic molecules. The discovery of organic molecules would indeed be important, but it is a far cry from "life on Mars."
Guy Webster, a spokesperson for NASA, downplayed the discovery, stating:
"It won't be earthshaking but it will be interesting."
NASA will now work on repeating tests to conclusively confirm the findings, and will not officially reveal them until December at the next meeting of the American Geophysical Union which is set for December 3-7 in San Francisco.