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This rover is fetching

12/13/2012 - West Side Leader
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By Craig Marks

On the Mark — By Craig Marks

The Nov. 20 NPR program “Morning Edition” reported on the findings of the Mars rover Curiosity, which had been digging in the Martian soil with its fancy robotic tools. John Grotzinger, the head scientist of the mission, would not reveal what Curiosity had found, but he offered this tease:

“This data is gonna be one for the history books,” he said. “It’s looking really good.”

This made my mind race, which was surprising, as my mind usually finds anything beyond a brisk walk pretty taxing. What did Curiosity discover? Will it get its own chapter in the history book, or will Curiosity’s findings be relegated to one of those “did you know?” boxes where they put stuff that’s interesting but won’t be on the test?

The findings were to be revealed the first week of December, at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. If the news stories covering the meeting didn’t include the phrase “audible gasps,” I was going to be plenty disappointed.

NASA did its best to dampen expectations. “Rumors and speculation that there are major new findings from the mission at this early stage are incorrect,” said the space agency in a Nov. 29 press release. “The instruments on the rover have not detected any definitive evidence of Martian organics.”

Well, they’re just being coy, I thought. And who expected Martian organics? I knew the chances of finding a farmer’s market on the planet were very remote.

I saw the San Francisco meeting going one of three ways:

• Best case: “Sure, we’d love to tell you about our little discovery,” says Grotzinger to the audience, directing their attention to a live feed from Mars, “but wouldn’t you prefer to hear it from Space Chancellor Gxzmikle himself?”

• Worst case: The scientists say in unison that their study of the Martian terrain has found nothing of consequence, and we should all disperse to our dwellings. One reporter considers asking the scientists about their cold, robot-like expressions and otherworldly glow emanating from their lifeless eyes, but decides against it.

• A case falling somewhere in between: The scientists say they are pleased with the data they’ve gotten so far, but it’s too early in the game to make any conclusions. We all just need to wait awhile.

As it turned out, it was the third scenario. The scientists gave their PowerPoint presentation, showed photographs and answered questions, but they weren’t ready to go out on a limb as to what’s up there. More experiments were needed.

“Curiosity’s middle name is ‘patience,’” said Grotzinger.

For those of us whose middle name is “Are We There Yet?” this was tough medicine to take. But it’s understandable. The halls of science are littered with announcements of discoveries that did not hold up to scrutiny. Perpetual motion machines, cold-fusion reactors, new-and-improved Trix — all turned out to be less than advertised.

But if I were writing a history book, I’d reserve a page or two for Curiosity and its discoveries, and on the back of the book, save space for a blurb from Space Chancellor Gxzmikle.

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