Greg Redfern, wtop.com
In what has to be a social media-scientific exploration first, Curiosity, our robotic laboratory on Mars, tweeted a message to Earthlings last Friday that contained some sage advice:
Everybody, chill. After careful analysis, there are no Martian organics in recent samples. Update Dec 3 go.nasa.gov/114tJs9— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) November 29, 2012
So why was the rover telling everybody to "chill" in the first place? You can read the background about how the rumors about a major discovery made by the Mars rover started to spin out of control from a single NPR story here.
When I first heard the rumblings on the ‘net and in the media about what had been reported by NPR, my own speculation as to what the data could be was as follows: In order to be "Earth-shaking" and "one for the history books", at the top of the list would be live life - something had been found squirming in the soil of Mars. Next would be a fossil had been found, and third mission scientists had found an extraordinary chemical compound(s) in the soil analyzed by Curiosity's on-board instruments.
With Curiosity's tweet, followed by a NASA news release, it is clear that Monday's press conference regarding Curiosity will be devoid of any "OMG" moments.
And therein lies the crux of the problem in today's 24/7/365 nearly instantaneous news and social media cycle when it comes to science. We live in an era where people are connected to information outlets in a way that has never been possible before. When the NPR story broke, it did not go viral but it sure went wild and the online coverage spiraled into rumor and speculation. I was amazed at how quickly the search engine hits began to multiply regarding "NASA's big Mars announcement".
It was pretty amazing to see Curiosity herself "setting the record straight" with her tweet. To me, that was one for the history of science books.
We cannot lose sight of the incredible science and pure exploration that is being done by Curiosity in Gale Crater. While Monday's news conference may now seem to be ho-hum in nature compared to what many thought might be coming, believe me, it is not.
Each of Curiosity's findings are unique and cumulative. The social media-news cycle I have described allows us to virtually explore Mars with Curiosity in almost real time. I think we take this for granted and thereby lose sight of how incredible an achievement this is, from the science and engineering of the mission to the information-sharing technology.
The bottom line for us and Curiosity is that our joint exploration of Mars has just begun. We are barely over 4 months into a mission length of at least two years. The exquisite multi-colored sedimentary layers of Gale Crater and Sharp Mountain beckon us in the distance. Curiosity is flexing her scientific prowess with each Martian day and letting us know what she has found.
Perhaps there will be an "Earth-shaking" announcement from Mars someday. To me, each day Curiosity spends on Mars offers the promise of new discoveries and knowledge. During her nuclear-powered life span Curiosity's lasting legacy may in fact be that she provides the necessary information to prepare humans to visit Mars themselves. That would truly be "one for the history books".
Even without an "Earth-shaking" announcement Monday, you can vote for Curiosity to be Time Magazine's Person of the Year.
See what's up in the sky this week here.
(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)