Exciting news from Mars! Nothing ‘Earth-shaking’!

By Pete Goldie
Tuesday, December 4, 2012 3:39 EDT
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(Playing The Martian Guessing Game – Addendum #2)
The American Geophysical Union 2012 Annual Meeting, a San Francisco December tradition, is one of the premier settings for presenting the latest in planetary science.  The first day was no exception.  Heard today, in order of scientific importance:
1)  Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity landed safely four months ago.
2)  MSL landed on target, on an ancient river bed where water flowed from ankle to hip deep.
3)  With the exception of a wind sensor, every science instrument works as well as, or better, than expected.
4)  There is no earth-shaking discovery from the SAM instrument suite.

Wait.  Since when does one report “no earth-shaking discovery today” as a scientific achievement?  In this case, since an NPR report Nov. 20 predicting great news set the nerdosphere on fire.  Those attention grabbing quotes were initially lassoed by NASA HQ, then finally put to rest right off the bat today by their reported source, MSL Chief Scientist John Grotzinger.  He was quick and clear about it, and it seemed that only reporters from mainstream media wanted to pursue it further.  While some were waiting to hear NPR’s Joe Palca say “never mind”, instead we were treated to him literally phoning it in, in the form of an unrelated question to the science panel.  Other than the tiniest of twitters, no one seemed to notice him.

As for my own complicity in the Martian Guessing Game, I am glad to have played, even if I was played.  It was a useful exercise, it forced me to read up on the SAM instruments (thank you, Emily, from The Planetary Society! http://www.planetary.org/blogs/emily-lakdawalla/2012/curiosity-instrument-sam.html/), and recall long ago organic chemistry lectures.  The self-imposed refresher course was invaluable today as the SAM PI Paul Mahaffy described the chlorinated hydrocarbons they detected.  Hey, wait… I predicted hydrocarbons!  Point for the amateur!  Well, half a point, as the carbon source is unclear and only a tiny portion is 2, 3, or 4 carbon atoms.  Mars receives hundreds of tons of carbonaceous meteorites each year with more complex carbon.  NASA HQ was right after all.

Tomorrow I will get a fresh look at what’s new from that used MER Opportunity, still poking around on the other side of Mars.  These are mighty exciting presentations, but “earth-shaking”?   It rocks my world.

(Today’s official NASA MSL news release: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?release=2012-380&cid=release_2012-380)

Pete Goldie holds a Ph.D. and 2 other graduate degrees from “old East Coast universities.” “I merely wish it known that I am a licensed ceramic tile & natural stone contractor and everything I write about space science is not only freely available but eagerly disseminated by federal government agencies through the judicious expenditure of income tax revenue.”

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