What "history book" discovery has Curiosity made in the red sands of Mars? NASA will tell us in a week or so. This is how the robotic eyes of NASA's Curiosity rover see its destination — the sedimentary clay layers on the flanks of Mt. Sharp inside of the Gale crater.

NASA image

What "history book" discovery has Curiosity made in the red sands of Mars? NASA will tell us in a week or so. This is how the robotic eyes of NASA's Curiosity rover see its destination — the sedimentary clay layers on the flanks of Mt. Sharp inside of the Gale crater.

Jimmy Westlake: Awaiting the big news from Mars

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Jimmy Westlake

Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears Tuesdays in the Steamboat Today.

Find more columns by Westlake here.

NASA’s intrepid robotic explorer Curiosity has made a significant discovery this month in the red sands of Mars, but NASA officials are being very tight-lipped about what that discovery is. Scientists want to make sure their data are correct before announcing the discovery to the world in a week or so.

The blogosphere has been abuzz with speculation about what Curiosity has found ever since NASA scientist John Grotzinger titillated us with his announcement in a Nov. 20 NPR interview that Curiosity had made a discovery that is “one for the history books.” That sounds big. Just how big could it be?

The Curiosity rover made a spectacular landing inside of the Gale crater in August. Since then it has been puttering around close to its landing site testing out all of its systems before heading to the real target a few kilometers away — the sedimentary clay layers exposed on the flanks of Mount Sharp. In the past week, Curiosity took its first scoop of the Martian soil and dropped it into its SAM instrument (Sample Analysis at Mars). The exciting discovery apparently has something to do with what SAM detected in the soil sample.

Here is my speculation about the big news from Mars:

At the low end of the “one for the history books” spectrum would be the discovery of organic chemicals or chemistry in the Martian soil. Earlier analysis by NASA’s Viking landers in 1976 failed to detect any organic (carbon-based) materials in the soil at their landing site. It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the possibilities of life as we know it without these organic chemicals, so the discovery of organic chemicals in the Martian soil would definitely be big news. But the presence of organic chemicals does not necessarily mean biological activity.

At the high end of the “one for the history books” spectrum would be the discovery of living organisms on Mars. Curiosity’s instruments are not specifically designed to detect life, only the elements and conditions for life. But if the data were robust enough, they might strongly suggest the presence of living organisms or fossilized organisms. Either one of these conclusions indeed would be earth shattering. Why?

Life is the only remaining characteristic of Earth that makes it absolutely unique in the universe. We no longer think that Earth is located in or near the center of the universe, in a physical sense, but the presence of carbon-based life makes it the biological center of the universe. Were we to discover life — even fossilized life — on another world, it would remove the last remaining pillar elevating Earth above all other planets. The discovery would be so significant in terms of human thought that future generations might well divide human history into “Before Extraterrestrial Life Was Discovered” and “After Extraterrestrial Life Was Discovered.” It’s that big.

I sincerely hope NASA scientists aren’t overhyping some obscure geologic discovery in the Curiosity data. If so, they are going to pay a heavy price for creating the wave of high expectations that was raised with their early pre-announcement. I, like the rest of the world, await this “history book” discovery with bated breath.

Stay tuned.

Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. Check out Westlake’s astrophotography website at www.jwestlake.com.

Comments

John St Pierre 2 years ago

IF and IF they have discovered life... it will be quite a fun show to watch all the religious entities on our planet come up with an explanation..... from the believers that the earth is only 6500 yrs old to the churches who believe we are the center of the Universe.... Arthur C. Clarke:2001 a space odessey here we come!!

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rhys jones 2 years ago

So now the Pilot is selling ad space to Google, so they can tell me who unfriended me via a personal ad displayed HERE??? Your readers' privacy matters not to YOU, as long as there's a buck in it for ya, huh? Any illusion of privacy on the Internet is just that, and you're one of the snoops, O Faithful Pilot. No wonder everybody left this venue.

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Scott Wedel 2 years ago

Rhys, The unfriend ad does not use your personal info to tell you how many unfriended you. It is a generic ad to sucker you into clicking.

The ad tells me 3 people unfriended me which is obviously not true since I have not signed up with any service that has friends.

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rhys jones 2 years ago

Thanks Scott -- I didn't think I could lose so many, so fast, and a quick review of my Facebook friends confirmed it -- if anybody left, I don't miss 'em.

It said it was free, then it wanted to download a Windows (.EXE) executable, making me doubly glad I don't use that can-of-worms op sys any more than I have to. I think the little Dell I developed CAD integration on may have picked up a little cold, however. 'Nuf of THAT...

I forgive the Pilot, for acceding to the Google gods, and their cheap ploy to make money.

And now to comment on this article, thus not poaching this thread TOO bad -- I look forward to NASA's revelation; maybe it has to do with Michael Valentine Smith, Heinlein's protagonist, and importer of the word "grok." Heinlein proposed some interesting theories, scores of years ahead of his time. NASA even modeled their space program after his books; he was no dummy... in one of his books, colonizing Mars, he points out that the reason it is the Red Planet is because the red is rust -- oxidized iron -- and all we had to do was separate the iron from the oxygen.

I expect interesting news regardless, surely causing closed minds everywhere to reconsider the origin of life. That was one reason I gave up on traditional religion, as none even attempted to explain flying saucers. My friend saw one, over by Green Mountain reservoir, was even pursued for a while; his hair stood on end with magnetism, and he was truly scared. This was one of my more level-headed friends, not into drugs at all (well what's a little pot) so I believed him, and still do.

Yup, should be interesting...

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Scott Wedel 2 years ago

Jimmy, I doubt that life being found on Mars would be that important. Assuming they didn't find a mural of martians colonizing earth and instead found something like geological evidence of lake algae then possibility would remain that life started on earth and some event such as a comet impact throw up debris that an algae cell made it to Mars.

So earth as the center of life is highly unlikely to be disproven.

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rhys jones 2 years ago

Scott -- The Stealth bomber utilizes technology "borrowed" from crashed UFO's -- they take those to an Air Force base in New Jersey (or nearby) for research. Alien corpses were recovered from at least one, one reportedly still alive. Our government's continued denial -- then silence -- is hardly a surprise; how could we possibly prepare for an alien invasion? They could dust us in a heartbeat.

I'm sure Jerry would squawk, but this could actually dovetail with Biblical accounts, of "angels" (advanced beings) guiding their clueless little brothers... as well as Seth, who says that life is a constant evolution of your being, and you WILL reincarnate, believe it or not. In either event, they're not out to harm us, is my belief -- just observe, and guide as necessary. I don't think they intended for their technology to be adapted to a bomber, however.

To paraphrase Tolkein: Mankind is never so ingenious, as when devising new ways to kill his fellow man. Most technology is an offshoot of defense, including this here Internet.

Yeah, we don't have a clue -- and will all be astounded, when we finally get one.

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jerry carlton 2 years ago

Rhys You may or may not remember that I worked on the Stealth Bomber for 5 years in Seattle. Never heard that tall tale before. Concerning faith, most people put their faith in something, money, Buddah, Allah, a herb called MJ, themselves, a political party. 25 years ago I chose to put my faith in Jesus Christ and that has brought me a second wife of 20 years tomorrow and a comfortable retirement of 3 years. I will continue to place my faith in Him. Now on to something we can agree on. Earlier I predicted 13-3 or 12-4 for the Broncos. What say you?

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mark hartless 2 years ago

So there is a "Being" in a far-off world that had the technology to cross the galaxy... from light years away... farther away than we can even see with radio telescopes... and they crossed that great gulf fast enough to still be alive when they reached our solar system...

And yet they didn't send a mop-up team in to retrieve their lost/stolen technology and fallen comrades... they won't come back and help us develop clean, free, abundant energy like they use in their spaceship... they won't disable our nuclear weapons... they won't feed our hungry... cure our sick... save our poor...

Sounds to me like some really rich-ass aliens need to have their taxes raised.

Never mind their technology couldn't prevent them from crashing into a planet full of war-mongering neanderthals, being taken captive (dead and alive) by a race that can't get to Mars and couldn't enable self-destruct technology on their own top-of-the-line weapons systems.

Seriously Rhys, Thanks for the laughs. You are indeed an animated and gifted young man.

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rhys jones 2 years ago

Jerry -- I think 9-4 would be a good mark to shoot for. Any of Tampa Bay, Cleveland, or Baltimore could surprise them -- though I think the Broncos are ultimately better -- they're going to have to figure out how to stop spotting the other team 2-3 touchdowns -- maybe by giving McGahee velcro gloves, upon his return. And wasn't that 2-point loss in Salt Lake a heartbreaker last night? I guess we can forgive Andre Miller for missing his desperation 3-pointer with at least 2 seconds left -- while he is the best passer in the league, he's probably getting senile, at 36. I know I was. Oh yeah, I forgot, you're in Nuggets' never-never land. Sorry. And BTW, I saw where that multi-skin technology to split radar blips was lifted directly from UFO's, but you hear all kinds of crazy stuff these days.

Mark -- Glad to see you're back in form; I was getting worried. Sure, ignore all the evidence, believe whatever you want, don't make me no never mind. Get personal about it too, why dontcha. Some things never change -- and thanks for the compliment, sonny.

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Scott Wedel 2 years ago

9-4? So three games on their schedule won't be played?

I'd guess 11-5 with 10-6 as next likeliest. I don't see them getting a first round bye, but have pretty much clinched a playoff berth so I think they will protect Manning and generally focus on the first round playoff game more than the rest of the regular season.

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rhys jones 2 years ago

Scott -- Yer right -- my math is off -- I ran out of fingers -- thank you for pointing that out, in such a kindly fashion -- I'm guessing they'll finish at 12-4, 11-5 at worst. And I'm betting Peyton plays every minute he can.

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Scott Wedel 2 years ago

Rhys, I also think that Manning will be playing every down, but I think their play calling will be more conservative with more quick passes and runs. They will want to avoid Manning getting hit.

As for the Mars news, it is now being talked down as news to be released at a geophysics conference while anything real important would be released via a NASA press conference. Probably going to announce something like Mars once had surface water. And thus something for the history books since that is not previously proven, but was speculated.

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rhys jones 2 years ago

Scott -- Manning rarely gets hit -- he runs a tight, fast show, subject to change -- and likely to -- by the second, depending on the defensive alignment. Most of his passes are already the quick variety, over the middle or in the flats, rarely down the field, but his protection has been generally excellent. The running game has taken a momentary hit, with McGahee going down, Hillman and Moreno definite steps down, and I am only slightly alarmed to not see Jeremiah Johnson on the roster; I think he was as good or better than any of them. I think little will change with the offense, they'll continue to rack up points, assuming they can hang on to the ball. Subbing for Peyton would be a mistake; he needs to keep the momentum going. It's the DEFENSE which keeps Denver in the race, though they say Peyton elevates everybody's game.

Mars is just a baby step, for us, barely inhabitable, if at all -- while there are THOUSANDS of friendlier planets and moons, in the (relatively) not-too-distant universe -- still light-years away, however. If we don't figure out a much faster method of propulsion (or time warp) I could see whole generations being born on space ships, as we branch out in the cosmos, this planet ultimately doomed...

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mark hartless 2 years ago

See Rhys, there's another thing on which we agree... this planet IS ultimately doomed.

And I really meant it: you are indeed gifted with quite a mind, and I mean that in the kindest way.

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rhys jones 2 years ago

This "quite a mind" is not above washing dishes, in lieu of computer success (will probably have to do that again) that, and about four bucks, will get me a cup of coffee at Starbucks. I'm book-smart and street-stupid. I'm my own worst enemy, me and my mouth. It's a helluva trip, and I wouldn't want it any other way (well...)

Yes Mark, if the volcano in Yellowstone doesn't erupt (it's overdue) and no asteroids obliterate us, the aliens don't destroy us, the ozone layer doesn't disappear so we all get skin cancer, and the ocean levels don't rise so as to send all the New York liberals up here poaching YOUR LAND -- one day the Sun will turn into a super-nova in its dying last gasp, briefly engulfing this planet in fire and brimstone. (Right, Jimmy?) Hence our big hurry to find new digs. None of these are likely to happen in our lifetime, however -- not that that's any excuse to leave a mess for subsequent generations to clean up. We might be doomed, but not for some time to come.

Cheerio!!

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rhys jones 2 years ago

Startling news, folks: I just wiki'd the Sun, and it's indeed getting hotter -- ie, more luminous -- every year!!

So much so, that is quite possible why life did not exist here a billion years ago, just too cold, nor will it be possible in another billion years -- all water will boil off, by March that year -- long before the Sun actually explodes. Sheesh!! THAT'LL be a drag, eh?

Before you go poo-pooing Global Warming, Mark (though I'm not totally sold myself) I should point out that my rough math has that at about .000000001% increase a year (10% every billion years) give or take a coon's age.

I KNEW it was colder when I was a kid, and now my age is showing. Isn't Science fun?

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Scott Wedel 2 years ago

Life is believed to have existed here more than a billion years ago. Looks like life started about 4 billion years ago and relatively soon after the oceans formed. And it probably formed along ocean vents. That was a billion years before some algae starting making oxygen as a side product and put sizable oxygen into the atmosphere.

Earth's surface without ozone layer to cut down the UV rays would have been a difficult place for life.

Considering it looks like life started relatively soon after the oceans formed and it then took another nearly 3 billion years for mult-cell life then it would generally be expected that if Mars had oceans then it probably had life. But it would be a huge surprise if life ever got past single celled organisms on Mars.

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rhys jones 2 years ago

Your vast knowledge underwhelms me, Scott. Itchy key fingers, or just the desire to show off? Man, you are a contrary critter. Apparently Science is divided on this issue, so why should we take your word on it? Did you even read that wiki? I'm sure you can straighten them out too. You are a one-man encyclopedia, doctor of everything, lawyer too. I for one am awed at your knowledge, if not your pretentious snobbery.

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rhys jones 2 years ago

Sorry Scott, that was vicious. I hadn't had my morning constitutional. Still...

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mark hartless 2 years ago

For most of the history of man just about every person on earth knew (not thought, but KNEW) that the universe revolved around a flat earth.

Perhaps none of us should get too caught up it what we "know".

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jerry carlton 2 years ago

That is why faith works in my life. I do not have to "know" and it does not have to be "proven" to me. I just believe and it is a great comfort, especially in times of personal trials and sorrows.

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Mike Isaac 2 years ago

Fishcreek Where are you getting this info about the planet only being 6500 years old? I asked a Jewish and LDS friend about that and neither believe that tail. I do know the global warming crowed never points to the 1930's when most US heat records were broken or the 1400's when Greenland was Green not under 600 feet of ice. But im sure they know that earth is over 4 Billion years old. As for life on Mars it would be awsome it they found human DNA up there. Alot of history books would have to be rewritten that would blow the darwin and evolution theory and shut that bunch up.

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