Has NASA discovered life on Mars? If so, what are the implications?

Something is up with the Curiosity rover mission. Except nobody will tell us what it is. But they’re sure acting like it’s a big deal.

It seems NASA and the Curiosity rover have found something exciting and nerd-tastic on Mars, but the space agency’s scientists are holding back for now, despite how painful it appears to be for them.

NPR science correspondent Joe Palca happened to be in the room recently when John Grotzinger, lead scientist for the Curiosity mission at NASA, started receiving data on his computer from the rover’s on-board chemistry lab, also known as SAM (sample analysis at Mars). SAM and NASA scientists on Earth have been busy analyzing a sample of Martian soil of late, and apparently the dirt from the Red Planet has a secret to tell.

“This data is going to be one for the history books, it’s looking really good,” Grotzinger said in the story that aired yesterday.

And that’s about all he said.

Grotzinger and NASA have remained mum on what exactly Curiosity may have found in the Martian soil, saying it could be several more weeks until they’re able to verify the data. The scientists need to make sure whatever earth-shattering find they have isn’t an error or perhaps some kind of stowaway molecule or whatever it may be that hitched one really long ride from Earth.

Hmmm. So the reporter turned to another source in search of some informed speculation.

Lewis Dartnell is a leading astrobiologist at The Centre For Planetary Sciences at UCL/Birkbeck in London. He makes it clear that with so little to go on, no one outside of NASA can know what the agency thinks it has, but, he says, “the SAM instrument is designed to detect organic molecules on Mars, so the smart money is on an announcement along those lines.”

That’s right, the smart money is on what we all were already thinking — LIFE ON MARS.

Wow. That would be one of the four or five biggest discoveries in human history, wouldn’t it? Or not. The agency has now trotted out a spokesman to hose the rumors down with cold water.

“John was delighted about the quality and range of information coming in from SAM during the day a reporter happened to be sitting in John’s office last week. He has been similarly delighted by results at other points during the mission so far,” spokesman Guy Webster told AFP.

“The scientists want to gain confidence in the findings before taking them outside of the science team. As for history books, the whole mission is for the history books,” Webster said.

So, what can we conclude from these mysterious events? For starters, let’s note that the spokesman with the cold water did not say the speculation was incorrect. He did not deny that Curiosity has found evidence of life on Mars (or, for that matter, actual life on Mars). This is perhaps significant. For sure, I know carefully crafted PR-speak when I see it (having carefully crafted a good bit of it throughout the course of my career), and this is official language that’s scrupulously saying not a damned thing. The whole “it’s all historic!” line is pure misdirection. In other words, the PR statement has made me more suspicious, not less.

Why the secrecy, though? There are a number of possible explanations. For one thing, this is science, and science is about gathering, analyzing and verifying evidence. The timetables this process employs are completely at odds with those preferred by ratings-mad media agencies on a 24/7 “news” cycle. They’re not trying to generate sensational headlines – on the contrary. Until they know precisely what they’re dealing with they’d rather generate no headlines at all, and I’m willing to wager that Dr. Grotzinger has been on the business end of a stern talking-to today for reacting that way in front of a reporter.

Another possibility is that they have uncovered a landmark moment in human history. If so, it so radically alters what we know about the universe and our place in it that official acknowledgement of the discovery requires deep consideration.

Let’s speculate a bit. Say that Curiosity has, in fact, discovered life on Mars. What does it mean? The dominant assumption throughout most of history, driven primarily by religious exceptionalists, was that Earth is home to the only life in the universe. More recently we’ve discovered that the portions of the universe that we can detect, observe and examine contain several Earth-like planets that could theoretically support life. These analyses employ narrow definitions and, obviously, we cannot yet study more than the smallest fraction of the universe. Basic probability suggests that it’s unlikely we’re alone.

Still, it is one thing to speculate that life might exist, or even that it probably exists, and another entirely to have evidence of extra-terrestrial life.

So if NASA has, in fact, discovered life on Mars, it turns our assumptions upside down. Instead of viewing life as something unspeakably rare, if not utterly unique to Earth, we overnight have to assume that life isn’t rare at all – it’s common as dirt. Instead of life being too complex to evolve more than once, it becomes something that evolves as a matter of routine. Put another way, at that stage we will have evidence that life exists on two-thirds of the worlds that we have knowledge of. Never mind what are the odds of life elsewhere in the universe – if it evolved on two planets that are side-by-side, what are the odds that they’re the only two? If you’ll pardon the expression, the chances would be astronomical.

For the moment, we have no idea what’s going on at NASA right now. We do know that there have been other bits of evidence suggesting that the conditions for life may have once existed on Mars, and we know what SAM was designed to look for. It’s therefore not unreasonable to speculate a bit in the spirit of the joy of discovery.

If Curiosity has uncovered extraterrestrial life, I personally cannot wait for the official announcement and the uproar to follow. It might do us arrogant humans good to learn that we have neighbors, even if they’re microscopic ones.

Image Credit: NASA

Nota Bene #123: Behold the Chickenosaurus

“There ought to be limits to freedom.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #119: Think! It Ain't Illegal Yet

“My wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #114: Big Star

“The radio makes hideous sounds.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #109: You Can't Tuna Fish

“It’s absolutely stunning to me, the contempt in which the network holds the audience. The idea that these people have standards is laughable.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #107: Zzzzzzzzzzzzz

“I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #105: The Illustrated Dick

“When all you are becomes defined as the amount of information traceable to you, what are we then? What have we become, in a world where there is no separation, no door, no filter beyond which we can say, ‘No. This is my personal space. Not yours. Here I am alone with my thoughts and free of any outside influence or control. This, you cannot have.’ I don’t know, but I don’t want to find out.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #100: Il Planetario di Figaro

Wow, 100 issues of Nota Bene! Props to Russ for helping me for a while with this nifty little S&R feature. Never mind all that now, let’s get on with this issue. “What splendid buildings our architects would be able to execute if only they could finally be less obedient to gravity!” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #90: Monkey Business

“One reads such links, and what can one say but— Continue reading

Nota Bene #80: Meow

No time to waste Continue reading

The Weekly Carboholic: GISS and NOAA expect 2009 to be hotter than 2008

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giss2008

Last year, the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) released a prediction that record global temperatures should be expected in the next 2-3 years. GISS released their annual wrapup of the 2008 global temperature, and with it an updated prediction: 2008 was the coolest year since 2000 because of a strong La Nina in the tropical Pacific, and record temperatures are expected in the next 1-2 years. Continue reading

The truth is out there right here?

Did you catch this item in the morning news?

Former NASA astronaut and moon-walker Dr. Edgar Mitchell – a veteran of the Apollo 14 mission – has stunningly claimed aliens exist.

And he says extra-terrestrials have visited Earth on several occasions – but the alien contact has been repeatedly covered up by governments for six decades. Continue reading

Busted space loo – no laughing matter

Perhaps you’ve been following the story about the malfunctioning space toilet. Our buddy Mike Pecaut – Dr. Mike Pecaut, an actual rocket scientist who’s had numerous experiments up on the space shuttle – has launched a new blog, as it were. In it, he takes a detailed look at why this kind of problem has potentially catastrophic implications for our astronauts.

Congrats on what looks like a good new resource, Mike.