The end of speculation, the beginning of something new

CuriosityOn Monday 3rd December, NASA provided an update on the Mars Science Laboratory’s (MSL) most recent findings in analysing soil samples gathered from the “Rocknest” region of Gale Crater on Mars.

As reported last time, the findings had been the subject of intense media speculation for almost two weeks after radio reporter Joe Palca over-egged relatively innocent comments made by MSL’s Principal Investigator John Grotzinger concerning the initial soil analysis results received from the SAm Analysis at Mars suite of instruments while the reporter was setting-up and testing his recording equipment for an interview on November 20th. In his subsequent broadcast, Palca was unable to resist couching Grotzinger’s comments in terms of something “earth-shaking” having been found.

Had Curiosity found evidence of organics in just its first soil sample? Had Curiosity found evidence of past life on Mars? Had Curiosity found life on Mars? The questions and speculation seemed to grow with each passing day. Not even a firm, but low-key statement put out by NASA on the 26th November stopped the speculation growing, forcing them to issue a very strongly worded press release on the matter on November 29th and use Curiosity’s “Twitter personality” team to underline the fact that no organics had been found in a series of tweets the same day.

MSL Principal Investigator John Grotzinger

MSL Principal Investigator John Grotzinger

The rumour-mill had been fuelled in part by the fact that NASA planned to give an update on the first four months of the MSL mission at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), with some believing the space agency would only do so if they had something “major” to announce about the mission. The fact that NASA has regularly attended AGU meetings in the past to provide updates on missions  – including Curiosity’s predecessors, the Mars Exploration Rovers, seemed to escape people’s notice…

And the Findings Are….

An update was given at the AGU on Monday December 3rd, with NASA summarising them in a press briefing for those unable to attend the live meeting. While the results are not “earth-shaking”, they are nevertheless interesting.

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A Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) image of the third (left) and fourth (right) trenches made by Curiosity’s 4 cm-wide scoop. Acquired on Sol 84 (Oct. 31, 2012) the image shows details of the properties of the “Rocknest” sand dune. The upper surface is covered by crust of coarse sand grains approx. 0.5 to 1.5 mm, mantled with fine dust, giving it a light brown/red colour. The crust is about 0.5 cm thick and beneath it is finer, darker sand. The left end of each trough wall shows alternating light and dark bands, indicating that the sand inside the drift is not completely uniform. This might be due to different amounts of infiltrated dust, chemical alteration or deposition of sands of slightly different colour.

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