Fans of planetary science are abuzz at a teaser announcement from NASA that the Curiosity rover may have discovered something really, really amazing.
The discovery stems from information found by Curiosity‘s Sample Analysis at Mars instrument, or SAM. SAM is the onboard chemistry lab, and evidently, it’s found something significant.
“This data is gonna be one for the history books,” said John Grotzinger, the chief scientist on the mission, in an interview with NPR. “It’s looking really good.”
What could it be? Nobody knows. We’ll find out in December, apparently. But that hasn’t stopped people from making wild and unsubstantiated guesses about just which type of history books this is one for.
Now, some killjoys like astronomer Phil Plait have said that we shouldn’t get overly excited about this, that there’s no evidence that we’ve discovered the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything, and besides, everyone already knows it’s 42. But what does Plait know? He just holds a doctorate in astronomy. Now, I’m not a scientist, man, but I think I’m just as qualified as anyone to come up with possibly-true explanations for what we’ve discovered. You may say it’s irresponsible to speculate; I say it’s irresponsible not to.
5. The Secret Base that Barack Obama Teleported to in the 1980s
As everyone knows, President Barack Obama teleported to Mars in the early 1980s as part of a top-secret CIA experiment. (Oh, sure, the White House denies it now, but what would they say if it had really happened? Exactly.)
Why Mars? Well, to build relationships with the humanoids and animals who live there. Obviously. Anyhow, if SAM actually found the exact spot Obama teleported to, that will indeed be one for the history books — since it would be the first place that a future US President teleported to. (Of course, we all know that Coolidge teleported to Ganymede, but that was while he was in office.)
4. Cydonia Mensæ
Since we know that there were all kinds of humanoids on Mars for Barack Obama to meet, the obvious question is: where do they live? Well, Cydonia Mensæ, obviously! Yes, Cydonia Mensæ — home to the famous Martian pyramids, and the Face on Mars, and, I assume, the fabled Kermit the Frog of Mars.
Okay, “scientists” will say that these were just examples of pareidolia, and that later images of the face showed it to be not so much a face as a hill. But scientists also say the world is round, and that seasons are caused by the tilt of the Earth, rather than the proper blood sacrifices being made at the right time. Who are you going to believe?
All right, I’m kidding. There’s no way Curiosity discovered Cydonia Mensæ. It’s nowhere near there. Maybe the next rover will. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t find something really cool.
3. A Man, a Plan, a Canal — Mars!
Maybe SAM found evidence of the ancient Martian canals astronomers discovered back in the 19th century. Oh, sure, that theory has been widely and completely discredited, but then again so has Young Earth Creationism, and people are still saying we should teach the controversy about that. How could a mass spectrometer discover evidence of Martian canals, which by definition are artificial channels for carrying water? Shut up, that’s how.
If SAM has discovered Martian canals, that would be really cool, as it would mean that all those 1930s-era science fiction books and movies featuring evil Martian warlords and beautiful Martian princesses are actually true. Of course, in an ironic twist, it will turn out that both warlords and princesses reject our human patriarchal definitions of what Martian gender roles are supposed to be.
2. Life on Mars
The mind-bending BBC television program could in fact have been discovered on Mars. If so, its discovery could allow billions of non-Britons and non-Anglophiles to discover the story of Sam Tyler, who was thrown back in time to 1973 Manchester after being hit by a car. Or is it all in his imagination? And does Ashes to Ashes clear anything up?
Of course, if Curiosity discovered the far inferior American remake, it can just leave it be.
1. Life on Mars
In all sincerity, this is what most of us are hoping Curiosity has found. The rover was designed to analyze bits of Martian soil for tell-tale hints of life. Most of us have been crossing our fingers that SAM has found certain organic chemicals in quantities that can’t be explained by non-biological means. If so, it would mean that life once existed on Mars, and that therefore, life in the universe is ubiquitous. It would spur us on to investigate Europa and Enceladus, moons of Jupiter and Saturn that both possess liquid oceans under their surfaces. It would be one of the most important discoveries of all time.
And that’s just assuming we discover that life must once have existed on Mars. If we discover that life still exists on Mars, despite the harsh conditions there, it will change the way we see the universe, and ourselves, for all time.
Of course, we’ve been down this road before. The AH84001 meteorite may contain fossilized Martian nanobacteria — or maybe it doesn’t. Science, being science, has demanded rigorous proof before we can say with certainty that Mars once had life on it. This is as it should be, of course — because the discovery of life on another world would be Earth-shattering, we should demand nothing less.
Still, it’s hard not to get ahead of ourselves and start imagining it. Even if Martian life is small and single-celled, it would still represent proof that there is life somewhere in the universe other than here. And that would mean that out there in the vast infinity of space, there was life aplenty, life everywhere — and inevitably, somewhere, another intelligent species, looking at the planets in their solar system for hints of life. No, we shouldn’t start dreaming yet — this could be something comparatively prosaic but still incredibly important, like the discovery that Mars has more water than we thought. But that’s no fun. So Dr. Plait will have to forgive me, but I’m going to speculate about the Martian taxonomy until NASA tells me I can’t anymore. I many not be a scientist, man, but that doesn’t mean I can’t dream.
Image Credit: Luke Bryant