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Tamping Down Those Mars Expectations-Grotzinger Quote a Misunderstanding-UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Nov-2012
Updated: 28-Nov-2012 07:46 PM

UPDATE:   The Mars Curiosity Twitter feed tweeted a link to this charming, funny video of what the rover just might find on Mars!

Expectations of a major announcement about a discovery by NASA's Mars Curiosity rover have loomed large since National Public Radio (NPR) reported that Curiosity's top scientist said history was in the making.   NASA is now trying to dampen those expectations, explaining that he was not referring to anything specific that already has been discovered, but only to the mission overall.

Veteran NPR science correspondent Joe Palca reported on November 20 that John Grotzinger, Curiosity's principal investigator, told him data from the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument was "gonna be one for the history books."   SAM is the instrument that analyzes samples scooped up from the surface by Curiosity's robotic arm.   Curiosity landed on Mars on August 5 (Pacific Daylight Time, August 6, Eastern Daylight Time) and began a 2-year mission that many expect to be extended long beyond that.

And there's the rub.   NASA is trying to explain that Grotzinger was referring to the totality of data that will come from Curiosity over its mission lifetime, not a specific discovery from the few samples SAM has analyzed so far.

The Twitterverse and media outlets jumped on the story, some demanding to know when NASA would announce the historic findings.   Attention is focused on next week's annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco, the venue for many scientific papers announcing the most recent geophysical discoveries on Earth and elsewhere in the solar system.   A public lecture on Curiosity is scheduled for Sunday, and a press conference on Monday.

The holy grail of Mars exploration is finding any type of sign that life exists or existed on the Red Planet.  The NPR story got many people buzzing that perhaps that is what Curiosity found as implausible as that might be (unlikely that it would be found so easily, impossible that it could be confirmed so quickly).

Palca's story goes this way:  "Grotzinger says they recently put a soil sample in SAM, and the analysis shows something remarkable. 'This data is gonna be one for the history books.  It's looking really good,' he says.   Grotzinger can see the pained look on my face as I wait, hoping he'll tell me what the heck he's found, but he's not providing any more information."  Palca goes on to explain the wisdom of taking a cautious approach to new discoveries, which need to be checked and rechecked to ensure accuracy.

That account left everyone hanging and waiting for the big announcement.   Today, however, Amanda Wills at Mashable reported that it was all a misunderstanding and Grotzinger was only "trying to convey ... 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." 

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden made a similar comment at today's meeting of the NASA Advisory Council at Marshall Space Flight Center.  Bolden said Grotzinger was talking "in exuberance" about the overall mission.  "Everyone's waiting for an earth shattering discovery," Bolden said, adding "not yet."


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