300 N. Washington St.
Suite B-100
Alexandria, VA 22314

GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Toronto Star November 23, 2012

Mysterious Mars rover discovery draws alien hype, critical backlash

By Kate Allen

Space-watchers were set abuzz this week after the lead researcher of NASA’s latest mission to Mars hinted at a groundbreaking potential discovery.

Earthbound NASA scientists have been receiving data from a soil-analysis instrument inside Curiosity, the rover that landed on the red planet in August. That instrument, known as SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars), is particularly looking for chemical compounds that suggest the planet is capable of supporting life.

In a radio segment aired Tuesday, the mission’s project scientist, John Grotzinger, wouldn’t tell an NPR reporter what the analysis had turned up until further tests verified the findings. But, Grotzinger said: “This data is going be one for the history books. It’s looking really good.”

His remarks set off a predictable round of alien-related hype in the non-technical press. “Nasa may have discovered life on Mars,” one British tabloid speculated.

But it also set off some grumbling among scientists and industry-watchers. Would the discovery be truly exciting — or part of what some see as a pattern of overhyped NASA announcements?

“I think it’s obviously a deliberate attempt to drum up interest,” said John Pike, a space and policy expert and director of GlobalSecurity.org. NASA space shuttles are all retired and the agency is facing budget cuts. And if publicity-mongering was not the intent of the comments, Pike said, “somebody who works on the program would have the capacity to get excited about things that civilians would not.”

Or as Phil Plait, an astronomer who blogs for Slate, wrote: “OK, everyone, can we all take a sec and just breathe?” He added: “This has happened before. More than once.”

In 2008, Plait pointed out, NASA sent out a provocative news release. It was titled “NASA to Announce Success of Long Galactic Hunt,” and it touted the discovery of something astronomers have “been hunting for more than 50 years.”

It turned out to be a young supernova, a less-than-earth-shattering discovery for most non-scientists, and definitely not aliens.

And in 2010, Plait and many others noted, NASA scheduled a news conference to “discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” Astrobiology, that news release reminded everyone, “is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.” Still not aliens.

The findings did initially provoke excitement: a team had discovered that bacteria living in a lake in California sustained their growth using arsenic, a usually toxic element and one not counted among the building blocks of all known organic life. The discovery raised the possibility that life on other planets could evolve in ways totally unlike how it does on Earth.

But other scientists raised serious doubts about the arsenic findings. Evidence now suggests the California bacteria rely on phosphorus after all.

Yet Grotzinger’s remarks differed in one major way from those examples: they were not prepared by public relations staff, but made to a single visiting reporter.

In an email, a media staffer for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where Grotzinger’s team works, seemed to suggest this was a case of an excited scientist speaking off the cuff.

“John Grotzinger was delighted about the quality and range of information coming in from SAM during the day a reporter happened to be sitting in John’s office last week,” Guy Webster wrote. “He has been similarly delighted by results at other points during the mission so far.”

And: “The whole mission is for the history books.”

Indeed, when other scientific institutions hint at exciting forthcoming discoveries, public frothing about aliens does not generally follow.

Whether the hype or the criticism are warranted will be known on Dec. 3, when a team of scientists plans to discuss recent findings from the rover at a news conference in San Francisco.

Copyright 2012, Toronto Star