Speculation increases over NASA's history-making Mars finding

An NPR interview in which a NASA scientist said the Mars Curiosity rover may have discovered something that will be a historic finding has science writers guessing just what it could be.

“This data is gonna be one for the history books. It’s looking really good,” John Grotzinger, the principal investigator for the rover mission, told NPR’s Joe Palca in an interview that aired Tuesday.

Grotzinger, however, left it at that, saying that scientists had to ensure they didn’t have air from Earth contaminating their sample before they announced any results, something that has already happened once before.

While Grotzinger wasn’t ready to divulge just what the rover’s soil-collecting device, or SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) as it’s known, had discovered, speculation is well underway.

The main theory is that SAM found some kind of organic matter on the planet. “Might these data indicate the detection of organic chemistry? This would certainly be ‘historic’ news,” writes Ian O’Neill at Discovery News.

Wired quotes University of Arizona planetary scientist Peter Smith who says: “If it’s going in the history books, organic material is what I expect.”

At Popular Science, Rebecca Boyle notes that evidence of water has already been found in the Gale Crater, near where the rover made this latest discovery. Finding organic matter in the same area would be big. “Curiosity’s science team already found clear-cut evidence for lots of liquid water in the past, and life as we know it needs water, too,” she says.

Time senior editor Jeffrey Kluger, however, urges caution in over-hyping this discovery, saying that the entire Curiosity mission is historic: “when a NASA scientist finds something that truly qualifies for the history books, there’s a difference between what’s historic for scientists and for the rest of us,” he writes.

In the interview, Grotzinger said the NASA team will need several weeks before it is ready to release its results.