The incredible public interest in today’s Curiosity announcement should demonstrate to Congress and the White House that strong support exists for NASA’s Planetary Science program.
NASA announced several findings from the Curiosity rover, including the detection of perchlorates and the hint of organic carbon-compounds. The detections announced today need to be reproduced and subjected to the rigorous scientific and peer-review process before they are verified, but they offer tantalizing clues to the history of habitability on Mars.
Today is yet another example of the deep discrepancy between the obvious public interest surrounding this mission and the budget for NASA’s Planetary Science program, which faces a 20% cut in the FY2013 budget, including a 40% cut to the very Mars Exploration Program that delivered the success of Curiosity.
The Planetary Society calls on the Administration and Congress to acknowledge the public’s support of planetary exploration and restore the small amount of funding needed to enact a robust program. This funding should include support for the next step of Mars exploration: sample return. Curiosity’s instrument suite, while impressive, pales in comparison to the battery of tests and analyses that scientists on Earth could use to examine the Martian soil.
The public’s interest in today’s announcement was due, in large part, to comments made a few weeks ago by Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger, who described these data as “one for the history books.” Despite efforts from NASA and JPL to reduce the high expectations created by this statement, many in the public expected an announcement of life (which Curiosity is not designed to detect) or copious amounts of organic molecules. While surely disappointing to many, today’s briefing shows that further exploration of Mars is necessary to satisfy the public’s excitement for the search for the life in the universe.
"The instrument works. We found carbon compounds on Mars, but where did they come from? Whatever they turn out to be, the press conference today demonstrated how excited all of us carbon-based lifeforms get about news like this," said Bill Nye, Science Guy and CEO of the Planetary Society.
There is much yet to be done on Mars in order to answer our deepest questions about the uniqueness of life and our place in the universe. The answers are out there; we just need to look.