NASA hedges on Curiosity's mystery Mars discovery

We'll soon know what historic Martian data NASA is sitting on...unless it isn't.

There's something historic in this Martian dirt and rubble, unless there isn't. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Let's review what we know about NASA's Martian secret heard round the solar system last week:

An NPR reporter happened to be recording in the office of the lead scientist for the Curiosity rover as some data from the rover's on-board chemistry lab was coming in. When pressed by the reporter to interpret the data, NASA's John Grotzinger declined, commenting simply that the "data is going to be one for the history books."

What happened next was rampant speculation around the Web -- including by myself (with the help of some educated guesswork from one of the world's leading astrobiologists). Given the fact that Curiosity's sample analysis rig is designed to detect organic compounds, the most logical assumption is that Grotzinger may have been looking at preliminary indications that some organic material is present in martian soil.

A number of caveats were declared along the way, at least on the part of the reports nearest the source of the digital game of telephone that ensued. NASA refused to say exactly what the data said because it could be a fluke, or some sort of error. Even the expert whom I interviewed made clear that he had no idea what NASA might actually have found, and was only speculating based on the equipment that was involved.

That was pretty much the whole story: NASA might have found something big...or maybe not, so stay tuned.

But then the trolls came out. I've read plenty of e-mails, comments, tweets, and posts over the past few days blasting myself, my sources, the larger media, NASA, and even James Harden's beard for playing a role in what is admittedly the science equivalent of Page Six gossip.

All of us here are used to dealing with the trolls, but perhaps not NASA. This week, the space agency began backpedaling.

Mashable claims to have spoken with someone on the mission team who explained that what Grotzinger was trying to say was that the data collected from the entire Mars mission as a whole was what was "going to be one for the history books."

Uh-huh. OK. Here's how Curiosity itself put it in a tweet:

Over the course of my career, I've spent a fair amount of time covering politics and even done a stint helping some campaigns with their media messaging. But you don't have to have any of that background to see a classic case of attempted deflection at work by an agency that has accidentally broken its tight media protocol.

Or perhaps, Curiosity didn't really find anything.

So what's the real story? OK, get ready, because here it is: Curiosity found something in a Martian soil sample that NASA hasn't yet been able to identify. At least, that's what Grotzinger, (remember him? The guy behind the quote that started this whole thing?) said in the longer, more detailed interview below with Space.com.

Finally, if you just can't handle all this speculation, just ignore it (and me). At least until early December, when NASA will hold a media event to tell us all what the big deal is...or isn't.

 

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