Is NASA really preparing to announce the discovery of life on Mars?

A number of small items from NASA’s public relations efforts have caught my attention in the last several days, and — like pieces of a puzzle — I’m beginning to suspect that they all fit together in a way that points to a major upcoming announcement about Mars. But unfortunately I also suspect that announcement will disappoint those who champion the idea of a Mars that once (or even still today) harbored life.

The current excitement started at a July 31 press briefing when NASA announced the discovery of water ice on Mars. (Space.com coverage of press briefing) For both amateur space enthusiasts and professional planetary scientists, this had to be one the biggest “duh” moments in all the decades of Mars exploration. The evidence for the existence of water ice on Mars has been piling up for years now, to the point where it has seemed a foregone conclusion that the water was there.

The next piece of the puzzle occurred the next day, August 1, when Aviation Week & Space Technology reported that, “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.” (link) That report hinted that NASA was preparing to release scientific findings that went beyond the discovery of water ice. The Aviation Week & Space Technology report immediately set off energetic discussions both on the internet and in the real world. And most people in those discussions seemed to interpret the phrase “potential for life” as meaning an increased likelihood for life. However, Peter Smith from the University of Arizona, who serves as a principal investigator on the Phoenix Lander team, quickly labeled the Aviation Week & Space Technology report as “bogus and damaging information.” (Smith comments on Space.com)

NASA now has announced that a press conference has been scheduled for August 5 at 2:00 pm EDT to discuss the discovery by the Phoenix lander of perchlorate in the Martian soil. The press conference announcement also contains language implying that this conference is just a precursor to future announcements. It stated, “Confirmation of the presence of perchlorate and supporting data is important prior to scientific peer review and subsequent public announcements.” (NASA press release)

Perchlorate is an oxidizing substance, however, so its presence in the Martian soil might actually make it more difficult for any hypothetical biological organisms to survive. So what does all of this mean? Hopefully after NASA’s press conference at 2:00 pm today, we’ll know better.

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