Monday, August 4, 2008

Mars Pheonix Lander Finds... Something

In late June, the Mars Phoenix Lander (artistically depicted to the right) scooped up a sample of Martian dirt, dumped it into its Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA) and made the first unambiguous discovery of water on Mars. On July 7, 2008 the Mars Phoenix Lander put a sample of Martian dirt into its Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA) and found... something really exciting, but NASA's not telling what that is. In fact, NASA had a press conference today (Aug. 4) specifically to announce that they weren't announcing anything. However, if the buzz in the planetary science community is any indication, whatever was found is something with implications beyond the Mars science community.

Rumors have been flying that it may be something really exciting - confirmation of past water flow, organic molecules, signs of life, microorganisms playing volleyball, God himself! Ok, maybe not God, but pretty much all of the other possibilities are still on the table. A member of the collaboration that built and operates the TEGA (not the MECA, which is the instrument that found whatever it was) was visiting CU last Friday, got a phone call, yelled into the phone, jumped into the air, and then told everyone that they couldn't talk about it.

While I don't know what will come of this, if NASA hasn't publicly released the information then it means one of two things:
  1. NASA is doing responsible science and trying to confirm the discovery before shouting it from the rooftops.
  2. NASA is waiting to give someone higher up on the totem pole (i.e. the head of NASA or President Bush) the chance to make the announcement.
I personally think it's probably option #1. To me, this seems a lot like the possible Higg's boson detection last year at the Tevatron in that it's interesting, but far from a sure thing. Still nothing fuels rumors like a press conference specifically to deny there is anything to announce, so I, for one, will be watching this one pretty closely.


  1. "NASA is doing responsible science and trying to confirm the discovery before shouting it from the rooftops."

    I hope there is something better than frozen water to report. It would be great, in my opinion, if they found something like organic molecules. But, we do want the science done correctly.

    "microorganisms playing volleyball, God himself!"

    I shouldn't say this, but I think the microorganisms playing volleyball would be the more interesting find. I mean, confirming the existence of God wouldn't surprise a lot of people, but microorganisms playing volleyball, now that would need some serious explaining.

  2. From the excitement expressed by several people who are closer to this than I am, I'm pretty sure that whatever they found evidence for (and it may not be conclusive evidence), it's much more than just frozen water. This discovery of water has already been made public and really didn't surprise anybody. It sounds like whatever this is, it's surprised people.

    As for volleyball, microorganisms, and Deity, I guess I would be more surprised by an amoeba going up for a spike, but then again finding God in a Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer would be pretty odd too. I'm not putting anything past Him, but the north pole of Mars seems like an odd place to hang out.

  3. Shouldn't the "h" in "himself" be capitalized? Anyways, great post. This is definitely going to be something to watch. I agree (fueling the rumor mill here) that this definitely looks like something more than a little H2O of any form. I wouldn't go so far as to suspect athletic amoebas of any variety, some basic organic compounds would get this kind of reaction, but then again, organic chemicals are common "out there", so maybe they do have something really different. I think I'll wait for the real announcement (which I doubt will be long).


To add a link to text:
<a href="URL">Text</a>