Google+ Mars Travel: What Has MSL Curiosity Discovered?

What Has MSL Curiosity Discovered?

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On 20 Nov 2012 MSL Curiosity's chief scientist John Grotzinger made a tantalizing announcement. He told NPR that MSL's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument discovered something extremely interesting, claiming that "the data is gonna be one for the history books. It's looking really good." He went on to say that the discovery was made from a soil sample taken by the SAM Instrument. This was most likely one of the five scoop samples taken from Rocknest (imaged right).

But what could it be? 

Could organics have been discovered? Or evidence of past or present life? Such a finding would shake the foundations of not only the scientific community, but of humanity's perception of themselves in the grand scheme of the universe. In a previous post (excerpted below) I delved into why finding life on Mars would be significant and what it would mean for us here on Earth.

Should we find life on Mars, there are two possible scenarios:

  • We discover life on Mars that shares the same genetic code as life on Earth. The chances that DNA, a  specialized, enormously complex molecule, evolved separately on two planets are astronomical. This would prove that life on Mars and life on Earth have a common origin. Understanding this would help humanity to understand more about the evolution of life on our planet.
  • We discover life on Mars that has a different genetic code from life on Earth. This would prove that life on Mars and life on Earth arose independently. If this is the case it must mean that life is common throughout the galaxy because two adjacent planets developing life independently implies that in the right conditions life develops. Such a discovery would lend credence to the adage that "where there is water, there is life." The discovery of life with a different genetic makeup would help to renew the search for extraterrestrial life and likely increase the priority of discovering more life in the universe.

Obviously all this is speculation for now, but the discovery of extraterrestrial life is one that has been sought for since man first looked up at the stars. For now though we are left waiting until the official announcement is made, which has confirmed will be between 3-7 Dec at the American Geophysical Union's fall meeting taking place in San Francisco. 

After all, if an announcement of life is to be made, what's another few weeks when we've been waiting thousands of years?


Unknown said...

Just how much less likely is it that DNA evolved independently on both planets than that the two planets gave rise to distinctly different coding chemistry? I have no idea, but isn't DNA, as complex as genes can be, an elegantly "convenient" adaptation, a relatively simple utilization of carbon links? Have biochemist designed alternate molecules capable of communicating instructions for assembling proteins? While inventing other molecules for carrying out DNA functions would be quite a trick, once the basic principle waswere discovered, I can't help wondering whether similar chemistry has been devised to accomplish similar ends. Or could DNA prove to be a widespread pattern wherever the proper components and processes occur together. I must be wrong, since you never read that DNA might turn out to be a common "solution." Kindly set me straight.

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