Update 11/29/12, 6 p.m.: A spokesperson for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory tells U.S. News that Grotzinger’s original comments to NPR were misinterpreted and that Grotzinger was excited the SAM component that samples the Martian soil was operational.
"He was extremely excited and continues to be extremely excited that we had the first data coming back from our first sample and the machine is operating beautifully," says Veronica McGregor, the spokesperson. "This was the science team's equivalent of the landing moment. It was a key moment after years of work."
“I think there was a misinterpretation of what he said. This is a scientist who was so excited his instrument was sending back data … John was extremely excited about having the first data back from SAM,” McGregor says. “It’s very interesting data and the scientists are chewing on this—he does believe this mission will be one for the history books.”
“But knowing these rumors [of organic compounds on Mars] were floating out there and knowing we didn’t yet have the results, we wanted to let people know that they’re definitely not in these initial samples,” she adds. McGregor says that scientists on the mission are still optimistic they’ll find organic compounds at other Mars sites.
“They wanted to avoid making any premature announcements,” she says. “They’re moving at the speed of science, but we live in an Instagram world.”
Bad news for people holding out hope for life on Mars: NASA has announced that the "earthshaking" discovery made by the Curiosity rover hinted at by the project's lead investigator John Grotzinger on National Public Radio last week is "incorrect."
In an interview with NPR before Thanksgiving, Grotzinger said the discovery "is gonna be one for the history books … it's looking really good."
NASA quickly put the kibosh on that, tempering his comments by saying the discovery was "not insignificant." Thursday, it took a further step back, saying the rumors are "incorrect."
"Rumors and speculation that there are major new findings from the mission at this early stage are incorrect," NASA announced Thursday. "At this point in the mission, the instruments on the rover have not detected any definitive evidence of Martian organics."
Calls and an E-mail to Grotzinger were not immediately returned.
The next Curiosity rover update will take place next Monday at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union and will cover the rover's first use of its soil-sampling instruments. Despite the disappointment regarding Grotzinger's earlier comments, the team said "there is every expectation for remarkable discoveries still to come."
"The Mars Science Laboratory Project and its Curiosity rover are less than four months into a two-year mission to investigate whether conditions in Mars' Gale Crater may have been favorable for microbial life," NASA said in a statement. "Curiosity is exceeding all expectations for a new mission with all of the instruments and measurement systems performing well."
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Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Update 11/29/12, 6 p.m.: This story has been updated to include comment from NASA.