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Martian Diaries

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Curiosity Roadshow
By Jeffrey Marlow

After months of acquiring and carefully examining mission data, many members of the Mars Science Lab science team are taking their show on the road this week at the American Geophysical Union annual conference in San Francisco.

At the much-anticipated 9 a.m. Monday morning news briefing – the one slated to address the excitement of previously unspecified findings – five of the team’s senior members sat on a stage in front of an enthusiastic international press corps. An even more eager gathering of scientists saw more detailed accounts in a standing room only session on Monday afternoon. (Attendance was eventually curtailed to comply with fire code regulations.)

In the morning presentation, Program Scientist, Michael Meyer; Project Scientist, John Grotzinger; Sample Analysis at Mars Principal Investigator, Paul Mahaffy; Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer Principal Investigator, Ralf Gellert; and Mars Hand Lens Imager Principal Investigator, Ken Edgett presented key findings and previewed Curiosity’s upcoming road trip toward the base of Mt. Sharp.

Mahaffy detailed SAM’s detection of a perchlorate-like substance – single carbon organics that raise more questions than they answer. “We have no definitive detection yet of martian organics,” emphasized Mahaffy. While the team is confident that the molecule is accurately identified and that the chlorine component is from Mars, the precise origin of the carbon remains unproven. As SAM applies heat to its soil samples, molecules can be shuffled around and re-arranged. Dislodged single carbons likely linked up with chlorine atoms to produce the resulting spectrum. Mahaffy and the rest of the team hope to clarify the source of the carbon through isotopic analysis and complementary tests from other rover instruments – a set of “comprehensive, fully integrated measurements,” as Grotzinger puts it.

Now, the broader scientific community is getting its first look at the spectra and photographs. Mission operations were set up with the aim of forcing scientific findings through the gauntlet of internal cross-examination before engagement with the broader scientific community. Grotzinger urged his colleagues to make mission control an intellectual safe zone, to rigorously interrogate the data from all possible angles in order to present a scientifically vetted data set to the outside world.

By all accounts, mission data is being well received, though Grotzinger is encouraging cautious optimism as the rover moves towards the stunning layered terrain of Mt. Sharp. “Curiosity’s middle name is patience,” he said, “and we all have to have a healthy dose of that.”