NASA has found something. Or rather Curiosity, the land rover crawling around Mars, has sent back data that a NASA official said would be “something for the history books.”
“They’ve found life!” was the first hypothesis. But that is almost certainly not the case. Nobody seriously expects to find resident aliens of any description on Mars. But there are several quite fascinating things that Curiosity may have found.
Curiosity may have found organic compounds, suggesting that at some point life similar to the early single-celled bacteria that colonized Earth may also have survived on Mars. Or Curiosity may have found methane, a possible sign of earlier life. If NASA does find that life did survive for some time on Mars, the next big question will be: What happened to it? What galactic event or series of events changed Mars so drastically that life of any kind became totally extinct?
Alternatively, Curiosity may have confirmed that humans could survive the radiation on Mars. We here on Earth are protected from many of the destructive rays of the sun by our magnetic core that shifts may of the solar winds around Earth, so that they do not hit us directly.
The radiation question is of critical importance for missions currently being planned for a trip by humans to Mars. The expectation is that it would take several years for astronauts to reach Mars from Earth. It would certainly be a downer if stepping outside their capsule was a lethal experience. One would even hope that they could stay for more than half an hour before scurrying back to the safety of the presumably protected capsule.
Whatever it is that Curiosity has found is scheduled to be announced at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union between 3 to 7 December in San Francisco. This will almost certainly not be the last of the “historic” findings generated by Curiosity. It is so far three months into an expected two-year mission, and it has yet to start using its drill to actually dig. What’s been found so far, therefore, is “superficial.”