A part of Mars rover Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars’ (SAM) instrument where Martian soil samples are deposited. (Image: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov)
So far it appears that there is no life on Mars, at least not life as I understand where a bunch of angry young Martians would pelt NASA’s rover Curiosity with rocks.
Of course, rocks are involved in Curiosity’s mission but that is entirely out of choice because that’s what it is supposed to sample and analyze. Among the many tasks that Curiosity is equipped to carry out perhaps none is more important than what the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) is designed to do. On November 13, NASA said, “A pinch of fine sand and dust became the first solid Martian sample deposited into the biggest instrument on NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity: the Sample Analysis at Mars, or SAM.”
So far it all sounded rather routine and space missionspeak. Then came something a much more compelling and specific when Joe Palca of the National Public Radio was told by the mission’s principal investigator John Grotzinger, "We’re getting data from SAM as we sit here and speak, and the data looks really interesting…This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good.”
Even if you account for the fact that the weight of the mission’s $2.5 billion dollar price tag is hard to bear, scientists are not naturally given to grand claims unless they are on to something. So Grotzinger’s assertion that the data is going to be for the “history books” has set the nerd community and apprentice nerds like me abuzz. Could it be that Curiosity has found something of great consequence and, if so, what?
As I said it could not be angry young Martians pelting rocks because that would have proved conclusively that life has indeed evolved there along the lines of what we see here on Earth. Speculations are that it could be some form of fossil or microbial life. But as the Guardian’s Stuart Clark writes Grotzinger had earlier said this: "Curiosity is not a life detection mission. We’re not actually looking for life; we don’t have the ability to detect life if it was there."
It is not altogether inconceivable that NASA may be deliberately underplaying the mission’s ability to actually detect life to keep the knowledge of its discovery a closely guarded secret. But then that is entering the realm of conspiracy theory. So let’s just take their word for it and accept that detecting life is not its mission. We do know that its mission is certainly to establish if Mars can/did/does support life.
Expectations are that in the next few weeks NASA will announce what that data “for the history books” actually is. Unless it approximately supports possibilities of life I don’t think ordinary people would particularly care. We live on a planet where life literally drops from the air, as in languid bees that started dropping on my desk the other day from the ceiling of my basement. They have gone now but our planet is bursting with life wherever you look.
At this stage I am more looking forward to being told that there can never be life on Mars because the planet itself is one giant life form or that it is a giant optical illusion. The news of life on Mars has been in the air for so long it has perished now.