NASA has reportedly uncovered a significant finding on Mars, leading to speculation the U.S. space agency may hold evidence of past life on the Red Planet.
“This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good,” geologist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology, who said that NASA’s Curiosity rover has uncovered exciting new results from a sample of Martian soil recently scooped up and placed in the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument.
It remains unclear exactly what NASA has discovered on the planet. The space agency is reportedly conducting various tests to confirm data streamed from Mars to Earth.
Speculation over the potential finding comes just after the U.S. space agency announced a series of major findings regarding the surface of Mars and its atmosphere. NASA researchers using the car-sized mobile laboratory identified transient whirlwinds, mapped winds in relation to slopes, tracked daily and seasonal changes in air pressure, and linked rhythmic changes in radiation to daily atmospheric changes. The knowledge being gained about these processes is thought to be key to allowing scientists to better interpret evidence about environmental changes on Mars that may have led to conditions favorable for life.
The announcement also follows a minor mistake by NASA officials. NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity failed to detect methane in its first analyses of the Martian atmosphere, a statement that was released after the space agency said initial signs pointed in the direction of the presence of methane.
Among the most interesting findings released by NASA in recent days relates to radiation levels found on Mars. According to NASA, initial reading of cosmic radiation on Mars shows that it’s almost the same as on the International Space Station.
“The astronauts can live in this environment,” Don Hassler, principal investigator on Curiosity’s Radiation Assessment Detector instrument (RAD), according to CNET.com on Monday.
The NASA radiation expert said the atmosphere on the planets serves as shield to block dangerous dose of cosmic in the space.
“Basically, we’re finding that the Mars atmosphere is acting as a shield for the radiation on the surface and as the atmosphere gets thicker, that provides more of a shield and therefore we see a dip in our radiation dose,” added Mr. Hassler.
More likely than not, the discovery will be the result of recent soil samples. The one-tone rover has spent the past several days collecting soil samples from around the region. During a Thanksgiving break, the team will use Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) from Point Lake to examine possible routes and targets to the east. A priority is to choose a rock for the first use of the rover’s hammering drill, which will collect samples of powder from rock interiors.
Although Curiosity has departed the Rocknest patch of windblown sand and dust where it scooped up soil samples in recent weeks, the sample-handling mechanism on the rover’s arm is still holding some soil from the fifth and final scoop collected at Rocknest. The rover is carrying this sample so it can be available for analysis by instruments within the rover if scientists choose that option in coming days.
While the mystery is likely to persist, NASA assured followers that they will reveal their findings in during the first week of December. According to Wired.com, a number of scientists say they expect NASA to announce the discovery of organic material, a key finding that would significantly increase the odds of life existing on Mars.
“If it’s going in the history books, organic material is what I expect,” planetary scientist Peter Smith from the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, said in an email. “It may be just a hint, but even a hint would be exciting.”
In an attempt to tamp down speculation, a spokesman for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is managing the project, appeared to pour cold water Wednesday on the hopes of space enthusiasts looking forward to an earth-shattering discovery.
“John was delighted about the quality and range of information coming in from SAM during the day a reporter happened to be sitting in John’s office last week. He has been similarly delighted by results at other points during the mission so far,” spokesman Guy Webster told the Associated Press.
“The scientists want to gain confidence in the findings before taking them outside of the science team. As for history books, the whole mission is for the history books,” Mr. Webster said.
The $2.5 billion Curiosity rover landed inside Mars’ huge Gale Crater on August 5, kicking off a two-year mission to determine if Mars has ever been capable of supporting microbial life. The car-size robot carries ten different instruments to aid in its search for life.