Big News From Mars? Rover Scientists Mum For Now
2012-11-21 0:00

By Joe Palca |

Scientists working on NASAís six-wheeled rover on Mars have a problem. But itís a good problem.

They have some exciting new results from one of the roverís instruments. On the one hand, theyíd like to tell everybody what they found, but on the other, they have to wait because they want to make sure their results are not just some fluke or error in their instrument.

Itís a bind scientists frequently find themselves in, because by their nature, scientists like to share their results. At the same time, theyíre cautious because no one likes to make a big announcement and then have to say "never mind."

The exciting results are coming from an instrument in the rover called SAM. "Weíre getting data from SAM as we sit here and speak, and the data looks really interesting," John Grotzinger, the principal investigator for the rover mission, says during my visit last week to his office at NASAís Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Thatís where data from SAM first arrive on Earth. "The science team is busily chewing away on it as it comes down," says Grotzinger.

SAM is a kind of miniature chemistry lab. Put a sample of Martian soil or rock or even air inside SAM, and it will tell you what the sample is made of.

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. Itís looking really good," he says.

Grotzinger can see the pained look on my face as I wait, hoping heíll tell me what the heck heís found, but heís not providing any more information.

So why doesnít Grotzinger want to share his exciting news? The main reason is caution. Grotzinger and his team were almost stung once before. When SAM analyzed an air sample, it looked like there was methane in it, and at least here on Earth, some methane comes from living organisms.

But Grotzinger says they held up announcing the finding because they wanted to be sure they were measuring Martian air, and not air brought along from the roverís launchpad at Cape Canaveral.

"We knew from the very beginning that we had this risk of having brought air from Florida. And we needed to diminish it and then make the measurement again," he says. And when they made the measurement again, the signs of methane disappeared.

Grotzinger says it will take several weeks before he and his team are ready to talk about their latest finding. In the meantime heíll fend off requests from pesky reporters, and probably from NASA brass as well. Like any big institution, NASA would love to trumpet a major finding, especially at a time when budget decisions are being made. Nothing succeeds like success, as the saying goes.

Richard Zare, a chemist at Stanford University, appreciates the uncomfortable position John Grotzinger is in. Heís been there. In 1996, he was part of a team that reported finding organic compounds in a meteorite from Mars that landed in Antarctica. When the news came out, it caused a huge sensation because finding organic compounds in a Martian rock suggested the possibility at least that there was once life on Mars.

"Youíre bursting with a feeling that you want to share this information, and itís frustrating when you feel you canít talk about it, "says Zare.

It wasnít scientific caution that kept Zare from announcing his results. It was a rule many scientific journals enforce that says scientists are not allowed to talk about their research until the day itís officially published. Zare had to follow the rules if he wanted his paper to come out.

He did break down and tell his family. "I remember at the dinner table with great excitement explaining to my wife, Susan, and my daughter, Bethany, what it was we were doing," says Zare. And then he experienced something many parents can relate to when talking to their kids.

"Bethany looked at me and said, ípass the ketchup.í So, not everybody was as excited as I was," he says.

Zare says in a way, scientists are like artists. Sharing what they do is a big part of why they get out of bed in the morning.

"How many composers would actually compose music if they were told no one else could listen to their compositions? How many painters would make a painting if they were told no one else could see them?" says Zare. Itís the same for scientists. "The great joy of science is to be able to share it. And so you want to say, íIsnít this interesting? Isnít that cool?í "

For now, though, weíll have to wait to see whatís got Mars rover scientists itching to say what they found.

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