Right now, there's a bit of Martian soil sitting in the Curiosity rover's sample analysis tool that some Earthlings are getting pretty excited about. If the folks at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory find what they think they've found, it'll be "one for the history books," according to the team.
NPR's Joe Palca caught up with John Grotzinger, principal investigator for the rover mission, who said his team was "busily chewing away" on data as it came in from Curiosity's SAM instruments.
SAM, or the Sample Analysis at Mars, contains a trio of instruments that allow the rover to perform a wide range of experiments on the surface of Mars, and to identify what chemicals and gases are found in samples. Curiosity's scoop delivered a soil sample to SAM for the first time on November 9, and so far JPL has kept a tight lid on the details, without even a hint given.
Grotzinger and his team aren't talking yet because they have to make sure what they've found is real. In fact, the team already ran afoul of a promising discovery that wasn't. Here's NPR's Palca:
So why doesn't 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
"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.
If the science checks out? "This data is gonna be one for the history books," Grotzinger told Palca. "It's looking really good."
We can't wait — but we'll have to, though we could be only weeks away from finding out what JPL found, or at least what the team thought it found.