Earthshaking Mars Curiosity discovery probably not so earthshaking

Earlier this week some exciting sounding news came out of NASA. The Curiosity Rover was continuing with planned soil and atmosphere experiments on the red planet when one of their engineers let a tidbit slip in front of an NPR reporter. But they weren’t ready to say exactly what they’d found.

“We’re 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, told NPR. “The science team is busily chewing away on it as it comes down.”

“This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good,” he said, cryptically.

But as excited as NASA and Grotzinger are by the data coming in from Curiosity, the space agency says it will be several weeks before it can announce what it has, well, unearthed.

This led to a ton of speculation, much of which had me sitting on the edge of my seat. More cautious outlets were focusing on the first results from the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) testing. Perhaps it had found some of the signatures of compounds required for organics in the Martian soil. Or methane in the atmosphere, which could signal very interesting reactions taking place. And of course the more wild eyed were wondering if perhaps there was some sign of the big “L word.” The Examiner went so far as to wonder if maybe Curiosity had turned over a fossil.

Alas, in an update over the weekend, it looks like NASA is seeking to lower the expectations.

When a NASA official said last week data from an instrument on the Mars Curiosity rover suggested something “for the history books,” many people thought an announcement was imminent of the possible discovery of life on the Red Planet — until the space agency began to seriously backpedal on the story.

It may be a case of once bitten twice shy as NASA has been through this before — a hotly anticipated and heavily hyped bit of news that only disappoints in the end…

“It won’t be earthshaking but it will be interesting,” said spokesperson Guy Webster of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

NASA’s caution is understandable; it has been through this before.

That article goes on to list some of the greater misfires of NASA announcements, many of which went on to be criticized after thorough review. But I’m still holding out hope for something good here. No, I’m not expecting fossils or little green men, but it would be nice to know if there’s any subsurface activity going on there. We may still get to the point where we’ll be exploring some of the lava tubes on the planet which aren’t exposed to surface conditions and who knows what we’ll find there?

It may still wind up being fossils. Or at least I’d like to hope so.