Communion Of Dreams

Something else?
August 2, 2008, 8:28 am
Filed under: Bad Astronomy, Daily Kos, Mars, NASA, Phil Plait, Predictions, Press, Science, Space, Universe Today

You undoubtedly heard that the Phoenix Mars Lander this week confirmed the existence of water ice at the location of the lander. News, yes, but as others have noted, scientists have had little doubt that there was water ice on Mars for quite some time.

However . . .

. . . what if there’s something else going on that will be much more interesting news?

The White House is Briefed: Phoenix About to Announce “Potential For Life” on Mars

It would appear that the US President has been briefed by Phoenix scientists about the discovery of something more “provocative” than the discovery of water existing on the Martian surface. This news comes just as the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA) confirmed experimental evidence for the existence of water in the Mars regolith on Thursday. Whilst NASA scientists are not claiming that life once existed on the Red Planet’s surface, new data appears to indicate the “potential for life” more conclusively than the TEGA water results. Apparently these new results are being kept under wraps until further, more detailed analysis can be carried out, but we are assured that this announcement will be huge

So why is there all this secrecy? According to scientists in communication with Aviation Week & Space Technology, the next big discovery will need to be mulled over for a while before it is announced to the world. In fact, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory science team for the MECA wet-chemistry instrument that made these undisclosed findings were kept out of the July 31st news conference (confirming water) so additional analysis could be carried out, avoiding any questions that may have revealed their preliminary results. They have also made the decision to discuss the results with the Bush Administration’s Presidential Science Advisor’s office before a press conference between mid-August and early September.

And from the Aviation Week article:

White House Briefed On Potential For Mars Life

The White House has been alerted by NASA about plans to make an announcement soon on major new Phoenix lander discoveries concerning the “potential for life” on Mars, scientists tell Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Sources say the new data do not indicate the discovery of existing or past life on Mars. Rather the data relate to habitability–the “potential” for Mars to support life–at the Phoenix arctic landing site, sources say.

The data are much more complex than results related NASA’s July 31 announcement that Phoenix has confirmed the presence of water ice at the site.

I can understand the desire to be much more certain of their results before making an official announcement. Remember the debacle of the Martian Meteorite which purportedly contained evidence of fossilized bacteria? That debate is *still* going on, in large part because there are legitimate questions of how to understand the data. No one at NASA, or JPL, or anywhere else is going to want to overstate the results this time around.

So, is there life on Mars? Maybe. I’d guess likely, given all that we know about the planet. But it costs me nothing to make such a statement – scientists with reputations on the line are understandably going to be much more careful in making that case. So, let’s wait and see what the evidence shows.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to Daily Kos.)

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