Public perception is a funny thing. People can blow some stuff that rarely matters out of proportion but almost never pay attention to the most important stuff.
A couple of weeks ago, when John Grotzinger announced that the data they were getting from the SAM instrument was very interesting, everyone thought (considering Grotzinger’s line of work) MSL has found evidence of life on Mars. No one cared about whether this was possible or not. No one cared what Grotzinger really meant by his “one for the history books” comment. We all wanted to believe that we’ve found life on another planet. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it’s always good to see people get excited because of science, but this time they got excited for all the wrong reasons.
I need to clear one thing up. After reading Grotzinger’s comments on this data, unlike most people, I never thought we’d actually found evidence of life on Mars. Not because it’s not possible, it certainly is, but MSL’s main mission objective isn’t to find life on Mars. It’s to find out whether Mars could ever have supported life whether in the past or in the present.
I never understood the hype. You have to understand one thing. SAM is an incredibly complicated instrument. It’s one of the reasons why Curiosity is the size of an SUV. It’s probably the most complicated instrument mankind has ever made and send it to an outer planet and it’s sending the results of its first test. No matter what kind of data it sends, that data will be one for the history books. Now, that data might not mean anything to you, but that doesn’t change the significance of the data. That’s the main reason why I didn’t care about the content of the data.
Enough with the chit-chat. Let’s get back to the point.
What NASA found was chlorinated hydrocarbons. Simple organic molecules made up of carbon, chlorine and hydrogen, sulphur containing compounds, and calcium perchlorate. I’m not an expert on chemistry (actually I’m not an expert on anything) but this is pretty basic stuff. What NASA found is some of the elements that needed to be present in order for life to be formed. That doesn’t mean we’ve found life but it gives us hope for future discoveries (also, read the last quote below). The most interesting thing is that we’ve also found calcium perchlorate. Phoenix lander found the same compound back in 2008 at the north pole of Mars. Curiosity is nowhere near that area and considering we’ve found the same compound on the other side of the planet, it’s definitely an interesting find. Why’s this discovery important? Well, since Mars is a very cold place, we had no chance of finding liquid water on Mars. But since calcium perchlorate is (I hate to use this phrase, but) some kind of salt, now we have hope that we may find liquid water on Mars. We already have enough evidence that Mars once had liquid water, but we’ve come to that conclusion by discovering indirect evidences since ’62. Finding a direct evidence would be huge.
Basically, the discovery itself doesn’t mean much of anything, but this is how science works. You make your way through up to discovery by finding pieces of evidences, therefore this discovery is important, as every other discovery. If it wasn’t important and wasn’t easy to misinterpret (because this is a sensitive topic), NASA wouldn’t spend a couple of weeks analyzing this data. I’m glad NASA learned its lesson because NASA had its fair share of false discoveries, most recently by the discovery of GFAJ-1, which was a groundbreaking discovery and if it were true, was gonna change our understanding of how life happens. However later on NASA’s proved to be wrong and that didn’t help their image.
Curiosity has been shooting lasers at rocks (literally) with its ChemCam, scooping the soil, and now it’s going to start drilling (the drilling tool is mounted on the robotic arm) which will mark another milestone because after the drilling, Curiosity will complete testing all of its instruments and focus entirely on doing science and driving to Mount Sharp, which is 5.5 km high. To give you a reference point, this is where Curiosity is right now (as of SOL 116). Getting and climbing to Mount Sharp will take some time (about a year) but Curiosity has the ability to touch & go, which is originally an aviation term, but in this case it means that the rover can drill/scoop/analyze stuff and then continue to move on its way in the same SOL.
Talking about this reminded me of Adam Seltzner’s quote. He said (right after Curiosity’s touchdown was confirmed): “Now we have to be patient. Which is why we think Curiosity’s middle name should be Patience”.
Also Grotzinger had a similar comment last night: “This mission is about integrated science. No single measurement will produce a hallelujah moment.”
Experts say we have to be patient, so we will. Meanwhile, stay curious.