The Big Curiosity Rover Discovery Is a Big Misunderstanding
When Curiosity chief scientist John Grotzinger sat down with NPR on Nov. 13, it was to discuss the rover’s mission on Mars. But when the interview aired last week, it was just one quote on soil samples that made headlines: “This data is gonna be one for the history books.”
It didn’t take long for Twitter, Facebook and even other news organizations to pick up the quote. Similar to a childhood game of “Telephone,” that statement ballooned into one of the week’s biggest stories: After just a few months on Mars, the Curiosity rover had made, in the NPR reporter’s words, an “earth-shaking” discovery. One so big that NASA had to quadruple-check the results.
That rumor, however, isn’t exactly accurate.
The quote heard around the world came shortly after Grotzinger explained that NASA had just received the initial data from Curiosity’s first soil experiment using a new Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, which is capable of identifying organic compounds.
Naturally, the public assumed that this meant Curiosity had discovered a complex organic molecule. But while NASA does have the latest soil samples, the mission team tells Mashable that researchers haven’t determined that particular groundbreaking discovery. In fact, the rover drove away from the location just five days later, taking more samples along the way.
What Grotzinger was actually trying to convey is that Curiosity’s data over her entire two-year mission will further our knowledge of Mars more than ever before, making it a historical mission. This is entirely factual. In her short time on the Red Planet, Curiosity has already made significant discoveries — like finding an ancient streambed where water once flowed. More recently, she determined that astronauts could survive Mars radiation levels.
As for Grotzinger’s comment about checking and re-checking the data before releasing it to the public, that’s just standard scientific procedure. This is especially true when it’s the first set of data from a new instrument.
NASA Social Media Manager Veronica McGregor, who is part of the three-woman team that manages Curiosity’s social media, says the rover’s Nov. 21 tweet was an effort to clear up the misunderstanding:
What did I discover on Mars? That rumors spread fast online. My team considers this whole mission “one for the history books”
— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) November 21, 2012
“It’s always difficult to quell rumors like this one,” McGregor says. “But at the same time it’s great to see so many people are excited and interested in what the rover might find.”
No one is saying there isn’t a major discovery in Curiosity’s future. It just hasn’t happened yet.
If and when that does happen, it’s important to note that NASA wouldn’t announce a major discovery on a news network. In fact, the agency only makes major announcements via press conferences at its headquarters.
According to McGregor, the agency does have a press conference slated for Dec. 3 at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting, but it has been on the books since Curiosity actually landed on Mars and does not coincide with a major announcement.
“Curiosity’s mission is producing an unprecedented volume of valuable science data,” Grotzinger tells Mashable. “Much of this will help us better glimpse the very ancient environments of Mars, that are regarded to have been the most habitable in the planet’s history. We have only just started on this journey back in time.”
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will display Curiosity’s latest progress and observations at the AGU conference in San Francisco.