Everybody Chill, NASA Says: No Martian Organics Found

by Nancy Atkinson on November 29, 2012

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Curiosity maneuvering her robotic arm and conducting a close-up examination of windblown ‘Rocknest’ sand dune. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

Relax everyone. There are no little green men or even a hint of organics on Mars… not yet, anyway.

“Everybody, chill,” Tweeted the Curiosity rover today. “After careful analysis, there are no Martian organics in recent samples.”

Update: And also, the Curiosity rover did not find plastic Mardi Gras beads on Mars either. More about that below.

Rumor and speculation abounded (and yes, we admit being part of that) after an interview with Mars Science Laboratory scientist John Grotzinger indicated something “earth-shaking” could be announced soon. “This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good,” Grotzinger was quoted by NPR.

Over a week later, NASA finally issued a statement that “speculation that there are major new findings from the mission at this early stage are incorrect,” and said that a news conference from the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) on Monday, December 3 will be an update about first use of the rover’s full array of analytical instruments to investigate a drift of sandy soil.

“One class of substances Curiosity is checking for is organic compounds — carbon-containing chemicals that can be ingredients for life. At this point in the mission, the instruments on the rover have not detected any definitive evidence of Martian organics,” the press release said.

The discussion on Twitter is that NASA perhaps didn’t do enough last week to quell the onslaught of conjecture and speculation. But most people in the US were scurrying off for the Thanksgiving holiday and perhaps didn’t notice a Tweet from the Curiosity Rover:

“What did I discover on Mars? That rumors spread fast online. My team considers this whole mission ‘one for the history books’.”

JPL’s press spokesperson Guy Webster told Universe Today’s Ken Kremer as much last week, saying “As for history books, the whole mission is for the history books. 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.”

So, while it won’t be “big” news, you may want to tune into the press conference anyway at 9 a.m. PST Monday, Dec. 3. Audio and visuals from the briefing also will be streamed online at: http://www.ustream.tv/nasajpl .

Bummed? NASA stressed today that Curiosity is less than four months into a two-year prime mission to investigate whether conditions in Mars’ Gale Crater may have been favorable for microbial life. While Curiosity is exceeding all expectations, and has already has found an ancient riverbed, there’s no earth-shaking news to report at this time.

But don’t be surprised if there are some remarkable discoveries still to come.

And about those plastic beads…

As a prank, someone put up a very convincing-looking JPL knock-off webpage saying the rover had found plastic beads on Mars, and a la The Onion, supposedly quoted real scientists. One look at the picture, however and it becomes obvious this is a fake, plus the writer puts Curiosity at Endeavour Crater, where the Opportunity rover is located. Phil Plait does his normal great job of explaining it all, so check out his post at his new home at Slate.

Fake beads on Mars. Image credit: Xevier Jenks

In the meantime, the Curiosity rover shared this cute video that also speculates a bit about what could be found on Mars:

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

John Clinton November 29, 2012 at 11:29 PM

An earth-shaking snafu. They did not specificly say that they didn’t find Jimmy Hoffa’s body though.

Dampe November 30, 2012 at 12:57 AM

They bloody well knew what they where doing when the said “Earth Shaking” news for the “History Books”. What did they expect the general public to assume? It’s no wonder why the public loose interest in space and Nasa. Just give us facts. Tell us what you find. It’s tax payer funded after all.

Doug Ellison November 30, 2012 at 3:59 AM

‘They’? This started from ONE scientist who said, regarding Curiosity and its progress so far ‘It’s looking really good….It’s going to be one for the history books’. The reporter pulled that out of context. The reporter said it was ‘Earth shaking’. Not NASA. Not JPL. Not the Curiosity project. They are giving you the facts – the NPR reporter decided they were not good enough and went crazy.

I3VI5 November 30, 2012 at 7:12 AM

How can you put “Earth Shaking Discover” out of contest?!
If you use the phrase “Earth Shaking Discovery” on an outerspace mission, it better be something amazing and not just “more red sand on Mars”.

What if later on they do find something organic, what phrase are they going to use?! Because I can’t think of anything more sensational or appropriate than “Earth Shaking Discovery”.
Again, that guy who declared this is a complete idiot. He should have at least clarified his position afterwards.

Doug Ellison November 30, 2012 at 7:18 AM

No one from NASA said ‘earth shaking discovery’. That was entirely a creation of the journalist who wrote the NPR article. John Grotzinger did NOT say ‘earth shaking’. I’m not sure how much clearer I can be. You’re angry at someone for something they simply didn’t do!

Dav_Daddy November 30, 2012 at 11:48 AM

Someone was actually listening to NPR? I mean really NPR could report that they found sasquatch on Mars and exactly 2 people would know about it.

Gary W. November 30, 2012 at 3:32 PM

Doug this is not really accurate either. NPR by nature is a radio program, and as such they do on air interviews, which means they produce transcripts of those discussions Here is a link to those transcripts. You’ll know nothing about “earthshaking” is said by NPR reporters.

http://www.npr.org/2012/11/20/165513016/big-news-from-mars-rover-scientists-mum-for-now

What you do see though is not one but two scientists hyping this up…perhaps mildly but with enthusiam, but what you don’t see is any rogue NPR reporter taking their words out of context.

The other thing you have to ask yourself is if these scientists or NASA didn’t like the way things were being portrayed, why did they wait 9 DAYS to refute it?

Torbjörn Larsson November 30, 2012 at 7:40 AM

From the amended text:

“PALCA: Put a sample of Martian soil or rock or even air inside SAM and it will tell you what the sample’s made of. Right now, SAM is working on a Mars soil sample, and Grotzinger says the results are earth-shaking.

GROTZINGER: This data is going to be one for the history books. It’s looking really good.”

Palca, not Grotzinger, is the complete idiot that describes what Grotzinger says as “earth-shaking”..

TractorEngineer November 30, 2012 at 8:25 PM

And what did NASA do to correct the story? Nothing, they sat and watched.

Torbjörn Larsson November 30, 2012 at 7:29 AM

And what Doug notes is in the article. Besides, NASA has tried to put out the facts, correct the NPR media disaster, twice now.

One has to remember that it is part of Grotzingers’ scientist duty to himself and those who finance him to inform the tax payers. That media, which duty goes towards a different bottom line, has incentive to run with it is something else.

Gary W. November 30, 2012 at 3:38 PM

Here is the NPR story, actually a transcript of an interview. Hardly a disaster, and hardly them hyping the story.

http://www.npr.org/2012/11/20/165513016/big-news-from-mars-rover-scientists-mum-for-now

Avaddon8 November 30, 2012 at 10:49 PM

maybe you should learn how to type lose instead of loose.

Gary W. November 30, 2012 at 1:11 AM

Lets face it, this Grotzinger fellow obviously hasn’t been in front of the media before, something politicians know well, and generally choose their words more wisely. I am sure in the world of planetary science geekdom what ever he found was cool though. But to the rest of us, not so much. Now find us some green men. ;o)

Doug Ellison November 30, 2012 at 7:36 AM

‘This Grotzinger fellow’ is the Curiosity Project Scientist. He’s a highly respected geologist, and has conducted literally dozens of press conferences and teleconferences since well before landing. He’s probably conducted a hundred interviews or more in the past year. He’s no idiot – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_P._Grotzinger . How was he to know that an NPR reporter would pull his words out of context and then inappropriately hype them by making out that Grotzinger said ‘earth shaking’ – when in actual fact he said no such thing? The NPR reporter did it so swiftly that if you were not paying attention, you would think Grotzinger said “earth shaking”. Even Nancy’s fallen for it – she’s put those words in quotes on this story to suggest he said them. He didn’t. Please, people, use a little common sense, show a little respect, do a little research, and stop lambasting someone for doing something he simply did not do.

TractorEngineer November 30, 2012 at 8:26 PM

Highly respected? Not after this stunt.

Torbjörn Larsson November 30, 2012 at 7:36 AM

Right, but it _should_ be part of the cool that their “green men” detector is working.

meekGee November 30, 2012 at 2:39 AM

EDIT – NPR, as it turns out, has since amended their “script”, without even leaving a note that they did so. Thumbs down.

ORIGINAL COMMENT:

Before everyone goes and blames NASA, please read the NPR transcript.

http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=165513016

Grotzinger’s direct quote above is generic and not sensationalist. The word “This” refers to something unknown, since NPR spliced a descriptive summary in front of it which is kinda attributed to something Grotzinger said.

So the listener is left THINKING that Grotzinger was referring to some sample, whereas in fact… who knows.

Gary W. November 30, 2012 at 3:42 PM

maybe because it was some fiction people made up.

meekGee November 30, 2012 at 4:06 PM

Then they should own up:

“In an earlier version of this story that was aired on such-and-such date, our Mr. Flaca got too enthusiastic with the editing tools, and instead of creating a theatric effect to illustrate Dr. Grotzinger’s point, he actually made it appear as if Dr. Grotzinger said something completely different. We apologize, and here is the original text.”

That would be the end of the story, and we can more on.

Andres Minas November 30, 2012 at 2:49 AM

My precious one-dollar bet for Mercury’s North Polar organics is still on.

Mike November 30, 2012 at 3:04 AM

This happend once before also when big news turns into nothing.

Jordan November 30, 2012 at 3:17 AM

Ok, I knew what could be found with the SAM, and Im STILL disappointed. I wasnt expecting life, but I was at least expecting carbon! C’MON NASA.

Torbjörn Larsson November 30, 2012 at 7:34 AM

Carbon was found by the Vikings in the 70′s (carbon dioxide atmosphere). Organics such as PAHs has been found in martian meteorites, but derive from crustal heat processes (geology).

What remains is finding evidence of plenty of primordial organics (for habitability).

Kawarthajon November 30, 2012 at 4:40 AM

Let me guess….hmmm, they found water on Mars?

I3VI5 November 30, 2012 at 7:03 AM

What was this idiot (John Grotzinger) thinking when he said “Earth Shaking” discovery, and “One for the history books”?!
There goes his career.

Torbjörn Larsson November 30, 2012 at 7:31 AM

I don’t think Grotzinger said “Earth shaking”, that was likely NPR if you read the article.

Even NASA wants to make Curiosity as “one for the history books”. But I’ll admit the timing was bad (discussing Curiosity’s 1st SAM results).

Kevin Frushour November 30, 2012 at 7:26 AM

I think they do this to check if we’re still paying attention.

briansheen November 30, 2012 at 9:17 AM

Well I expected images of a Walker Crisp Packet being chased by David Linaker across the Martian surface – I guess the majority of US citizens will not know what I am talking about.! Seriously though what did people expect, a tiny trace of unexplained organic compound would have been enough.

Adheeb November 30, 2012 at 12:23 PM

What does it tell us when scientists and those claiming to be objective are disappointed when the desired result is achieved?

fabuchachi November 30, 2012 at 12:48 PM

The plastic beads are Photoshopped.

lcrowell November 30, 2012 at 1:09 PM

It appear that we will just have to wait. If organics have not been found it likely means this science news involves some new insight into Martian past conditions and geology garnered from recent data.

LC

Aqua4U November 30, 2012 at 6:59 PM

What’s a couple more days? Eh? Still, I think it not quite coincidence the timing of this ‘tantalizing’ release with the ESA/RosCosmos ExoMars budget meetings ~

StanChaz November 30, 2012 at 1:20 PM

Psssssssst.

Just between you and me,

I have a bit of inside information:

The Curiosity Martian Rover found a …..TWINKIE!

Just kidding,

What they actually found was a live cockroach.

They survive ANYWHERE.

And they’ll be around a long long time after we’re gone.

Better yet:

Curiosity found a cockroach

munching on a Twinkie

…..and smiling.

W-i-d-e-l-y.

Olaf2 November 30, 2012 at 6:47 PM

I love it when crazy people run with a story and then fall flat on their face again and gets laughed at. These are the same fools that ran with the FTL neutrino.

ITSRUF November 30, 2012 at 6:58 PM

Kinda makes one wonder when NASA says something like: “The Earth is heating!” — “The ice is melting” — “The oceans are rising!” — “The Sky is falling!!” — IT’S EARTH-SHATTERING!!

Not much credibility… :(

Rain November 30, 2012 at 7:54 PM

Yup, so it turns out that curiosity is still just a self-portrait-producing machine.
I mean, really, how many more mission to look for water?

In the 70s, we
were bold enough with Viking to flat out go looking for life!

The modern NASA: Not A Slave to Adventure

TractorEngineer November 30, 2012 at 8:24 PM

Thanks for getting everybody jacked up for nothing. NASA is looking as stupid as Geraldo Rivera after his Al Capone vault bebacle (opened the vault after much fanfare on live TV to find–nothing!).

joseluis j November 30, 2012 at 10:16 PM

less budget–>more marketing, but of the wrong type, unfortunately

Gary W. November 30, 2012 at 3:34 PM

millions listen to NPR every day, don’t fool yourself.

Doug Ellison November 30, 2012 at 4:27 PM

Gary – NPR have edited the transcript ( as MeekGee cites below) to back out from the error they made. I listened to the interview several times. You can as well to check this for yourself. The transcript says “Grotzinger says they recently put a soil sample in SAM, and the analysis shows something remarkable.” The audio says says something very different. Check it for yourself. Even NPR have realised they made a mistake by hyping it themselves, which is why they’ve now edited the transcript You are also now yourself taking the second scientist – Zare – and totally misrepresenting his words. He’s hyping up nothing – infact he’s doing the exact opposite – he’s not even talking about Curiosity at all – he’s urging caution about early scientific analysis based on his his past experience. The scientists did nothing wrong. People are taking out of context sentences and hyping it themselves – starting with NPR, and then exploding across the web. Even you yourself are guilty of it by saying the second scientist is ‘hyping this up’ when he’s not even talking about Curiosity!

Gary W. November 30, 2012 at 4:43 PM

Lets boil it down, if any politician came out and said I have discovered something amazing about our government but I have to keep it secret for the moment, and then he has a colleague on the same show talking about how he understands why the guy can’t talk, what do these two fellows think the impression is they are giving to the American public? If the aren’t idiots, they should not be at all shocked that it would create the rumor mill that it did. I called this guy amateurs earlier, because frankly he should have known better than to say we’ve found something big, that we can’t talk about, and then walk out of the room. Not when there are thousands, if not millions of people whose first conclusion given so little detail would be that they found the one thing every scientist has been searching for on Mars since the 1972.

There aren’t to many ways to misinterpret “one for the history books”.

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