Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The Wandering Rover: Big News From Mars?

A short piece to bring to your attention some interesting news from NASA. It appears that the most recent robotic wanderer on Mars, the Curiosity Rover, may have found something whilst analysing the chemical composition of Martian soil.

What did they find?

Well, at the moment the team over at NASA, and the Mars Science Laboratory, are only hinting at something potentially significant. A very recent article from NPR indicates that one of the instruments present on the rover, the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM), has picked up some soil from the Martian surface, and may have detected something of note. To use the words of John Grotzinger, the principal investigator for the rover mission:

"This data is gonna be one for the history books. It's looking really good..."

Despite hinting at a potential groundbreaking discovery on Mars, no specific details have been released as yet. Though I'm sure those in the know at NASA may well be bursting at the seams to let us know what they have found, they are also being understandably cautious. As is so often the case with science, one needs to be sure of what they have, or have not, found. Indeed, it will apparently take several weeks until any findings, if there are any, are released.

A self-shot of the Curiosity Rover. No duck-face in sight, thankfully.
(Image courtesy of NASA)

Too often we can become excited by some breath-taking discovery, only to find that there is a simpler, more mundane, explanation available. It brings to mind the scientists over at CERN, where a a skeptical team working on the OPERA project were left scratching their heads after supposedly detecting subatomic particles, neutrinos, travelling slightly faster than the "universal speed-limit", the speed of light. As opposed to rushing to the media to capitalise on a truly remarkable discovery, they announced that they were understandably skeptical. As a consequence of this healthy skepticism, they attempted to verify the results whilst simultaneously asking other scientists to identify any potential flaws in their experimental design that may have given rise to an erroneous result.

Ultimately, it was found that the neutrinos detected by OPERA were not travelling faster than the speed of light, and were behaving as good neutrinos do. Instead of being embarrassed by rushing to let everyone know about something incredible, these scientists followed good practice and double-checked their data and, though not confirming any upheavals in the laws of physics, they set a fantastic example for all scientists.

Going back to the Curiosity Rover, and this recent hint of something newsworthy, it is nice to hear that NASA isn't overtly rushing to tell us what they allegedly have found. That being said, they are certainly building up an appreciable amount of hype over something they are currently looking into.

A few friends asked me what they may have found, and though I am no expert on the composition and chemistry of Martian soil, I gladly offered this comment:

"We won't know for sure until NASA issues an official press release, though it is fun to ponder. Evidence of past life? Complex molecules? Oil? A fat-free fudge cake that doesn't let you down in the flavor department like so many others? Only time will tell..."

Until next time,

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