Growing Crops on Other Planets

Science fiction lovers aren’t the only ones captivated by the possibility of colonizing another planet. Scientists are engaging in numerous research projects that focus on determining how habitable other planets are for life. Mars, for example, is revealing more and more evidence that it probably once had liquid water on its surface, and could one day become a home away from home for humans. 

“The spur of colonizing new lands is intrinsic in man,” said Giacomo Certini, a researcher at the Department of Plant, Soil and Environmental Science (DiPSA) at the University of Florence, Italy. “Hence expanding our horizon to other worlds must not be judged strange at all. Moving people and producing food there could be necessary in the future.” 

Humans traveling to Mars, to visit or to colonize, will likely have to make use of resources on the planet rather than take everything they need with them on a spaceship. This means farming their own food on a planet that has a very different ecosystem than Earth’s. Certini and his colleague Riccardo Scalenghe from the University of Palermo, Italy, recently published a study in Planetary and Space Science that makes some encouraging claims. They say the surfaces of Venus, Mars and the Moon appear suitable for agriculture. 

Defining Soil 

The surface of Venus, generated here using data from NASA’s Magellan mission, undergoes resurfacing through weathering processes such as volcanic activity, meteorite impacts and wind erosion. Credit: NASA

Before deciding how planetary soils could be used, the two scientists had to first explore whether the surfaces of the planetary bodies can be defined as true soil. 

“Apart from any philosophical consideration about this matter, definitely assessing that the surface of other planets is soil implies that it ‘behaves’ as a soil,” said Certini. “The knowledge we accumulated during more than a century of soil science on Earth is available to better investigate the history and the potential of the skin of our planetary neighbors.” 

One of the first obstacles in examining planetary surfaces and their usefulness in space exploration is to develop a definition of soil, which has been a topic of much debate. 

“The lack of a unique definition of ‘soil,’ universally accepted, exhaustive, and (one) that clearly states what is the boundary between soil and non-soil makes it difficult to decide what variables must be taken into account for determining if extraterrestrial surfaces are actually soils,” Certini said. 

At the proceedings of the 19th World Congress of Soil Sciences held in Brisbane, Australia, in August, Donald Johnson and Diana Johnson suggested a “universal definition of soil.” They defined soil as “substrate at or near the surface of Earth and similar bodies altered by biological, chemical, and/or physical agents and processes.” 

The surface of the Moon is covered by regolith over a layer of solid rock. Credit: NASA

On Earth, five factors work together in the formation of soil: the parent rock, climate, topography, time and biota (or the organisms in a region such as its flora and fauna). It is this last factor that is still a subject of debate among scientists. A common, summarized definition for soil is a medium that enables plant growth. However, that definition implies that soil can only exist in the presence of biota. Certini argues that soil is material that holds information about its environmental history, and that the presence of life is not a necessity. 

“Most scientists think that biota is necessary to produce soil,” Certini said. “Other scientists, me included, stress the fact that important parts of our own planet, such as the Dry Valleys of Antarctica or the Atacama Desert of Chile, have virtually life-free soils. They demonstrate that soil formation does not require biota.” 

The researchers of this study contend that classifying a material as soil depends primarily on weathering. According to them, a soil is any weathered veneer of a planetary surface that retains information about its climatic and geochemical history. 

On Venus, Mars and the Moon, weathering occurs in different ways. Venus has a dense atmosphere at a pressure that is 91 times the pressure found at sea level on Earth and composed mainly of carbon dioxide and sulphuric acid droplets with some small amounts of water and oxygen. The researchers predict that weathering on Venus could be caused by thermal process or corrosion carried out by the atmosphere, volcanic eruptions, impacts of large meteorites and wind erosion. 

Using the method of aeroponics, space travelers will be able to grow their own food without soil and using very little water. Credit: NASA

Mars is currently dominated by physical weathering caused by meteorite impacts and thermal variations rather than chemical processes. According to Certini, there is no active volcanism that affects the martian surface but the temperature difference between the two hemispheres causes strong winds. Certini also said that the reddish hue of the planet’s landscape, which is a result of rusting iron minerals, is indicative of chemical weathering in the past. 

On the Moon, a layer of solid rock is covered by a layer of loose debris. The weathering processes seen on the Moon include changes created by meteorite impacts, deposition and chemical interactions caused by solar wind, which interacts with the surface directly. 

Some scientists, however, feel that weathering alone isn’t enough and that the presence of life is an intrinsic part of any soil. 

“The living component of soil is part of its unalienable nature, as is its ability to sustain plant life due to a combination of two major components: soil organic matter and plant nutrients,” said Ellen Graber, researcher at the Institute of Soil, Water and Environmental Sciences at The Volcani Center of Israel’s Agricultural Research Organization. 

One of the primary uses of soil on another planet would be to use it for agriculture—to grow food and sustain any populations that may one day live on that planet. Some scientists, however, are questioning whether soil is really a necessary condition for space farming. 

Soilless Farming – Not Science Fiction 

With the Earth’s increasing population and limited resources, scientists are searching for habitable environments on places such as Mars, Venus and the Moon as potential sites for future human colonies. Credit: NASA

Growing plants without any soil may conjure up images from a Star Trek movie, but it’s hardly science fiction. Aeroponics, as one soilless cultivation process is called, grows plants in an air or mist environment with no soil and very little water. Scientists have been experimenting with the method since the early 1940s, and aeroponics systems have been in use on a commercial basis since 1983. 

“Who says that soil is a precondition for agriculture?” asked Graber. “There are two major preconditions for agriculture, the first being water and the second being plant nutrients. Modern agriculture makes extensive use of ‘soilless growing media,’ which can include many varied solid substrates.” 

In 1997, NASA teamed up with AgriHouse and BioServe Space Technologies to design an experiment to test a soilless plant-growth system on board the Mir Space Station. NASA was particularly interested in this technology because of its low water requirement. Using this method to grow plants in space would reduce the amount of water that needs to be carried during a flight, which in turn decreases the payload. Aeroponically-grown crops also can be a source of oxygen and drinking water for space crews. 

“I would suspect that if and when humankind reaches the stage of settling another planet or the Moon, the techniques for establishing soilless culture there will be well advanced,” Graber predicted. 

Soil: A Key to the Past and the Future 

The Mars Phoenix mission dug into the soil of Mars to see what might be hidden just beneath the surface. Credit:NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University

The surface and soil of a planetary body holds important clues about its habitability, both in its past and in its future. For example, examining soil features have helped scientists show that early Mars was probably wetter and warmer than it is currently. 

“Studying soils on our celestial neighbors means to individuate the sequence of environmental conditions that imposed the present characteristics to soils, thus helping reconstruct the general history of those bodies,” Certini said. 

In 2008, NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander performed the first wet chemistry experiment using martian soil. Scientists who analyzed the data said the Red Planet appears to have environments more appropriate for sustaining life than was expected, environments that could one day allow human visitors to grow crops. 

“This is more evidence for water because salts are there,” said Phoenix co-investigator Sam Kounaves of Tufts University in a press release issued after the experiment. “We also found a reasonable number of nutrients, or chemicals needed by life as we know it.” 

Researchers found traces of magnesium, sodium, potassium and chloride, and the data also revealed that the soil was alkaline, a finding that challenged a popular belief that the martian surface was acidic. 

This type of information, obtained through soil analyses, becomes important in looking toward the future to determine which planet would be the best candidate for sustaining human colonies.

[Credit: Astrobiology Magazine]

Mars Mysteries and Need of Human Exploration

Manned mission to Mars : Ascent stage (NASA Hu...

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Mars has been a mystery from a longtime ever since we have started to envision life thereon the Mars. Here is an excellent article from Markus Hotakainen, explaining the necessity of human exploration to Mars.

By Markus Hotakainen

1. Introduction

Until now Mars probes, orbital or vehicular, have been controlled by a combination of onboard software and radio communication with Earth-based humans. The main focus of interest has been the geological character of the planet (Levine et al., 2010a,b). However, there are many unexplained anomalies which are also deserving of attention and the close inspection of trained teams of astronauts.

The geological processes which characterize Mars are similar to and familiar from Earth (Levine 2010a,b). The principle of the past being the key to the present is applicable on the large scale. With a surface area similar to that of all the continents of Earth and a readily observable geological record of billions of years, Mars is a treasure-trove for planetary research, both of the planet itself, with relation to Earth, and in connection with the origin and evolution of the Solar System as a whole.

However, the exploration of Mars has to take into account the fact that during most of its evolution the conditions have been crucially different from those of the ancient and present-day Earth, which means similar processes could have led to different outcomes.Indeed, it is not just geology and biology, but the fact there are many unexplained Martian anomalies which require trained field scientists. For example, there is a wealth of enigmatic features on Mars defying any simple and straight-forward explanations. Many of these features will keep their secrets until human presence. Even the most sophisticated robotic probes with most advanced artificial intelligence lack – at least for the moment – the ingenuity and creativity of the human mind.

Thus the next step in the exploration of our planetary neighbor, should be a human mission to Mars and the landing a human crew, whose observations will certainly go beyond questions of geology but will also seek to determine whether life in any form exists on the planet today, or has existed in the past. Recent discoveries in the biological sciences have conclusively demonstrated that living organisms are capable of surviving in extreme conditions, and this means we cannot rule out the possibility that some form of organic life exists on Mars even in the conditions that prevail today. In terms of a search for evidence, there are a number of intriguing candidates for a landing site and base camp. Such sites would include proximity to water in the form of ice, which exists at the poles and also likely within the confines of some craters; all of which may harbor life.

Consequently exploring the anomalies of Mars could potentially give new insight into the geological and biological history of Mars and Earth. However, this would require human presence, as advocated by astronauts Dr. Edgar Mitchell (Mitchell & REF) and Dr. Harrison Schmitt (2010). Astronaut Schmitt is a trained geologist and the last man to step upon the surface of the Moon and he argues that it is imperative that field geologists accompany the first astronauts to Mars (Schmitt 2010). It is because of this astronaut geologist, and the human presence on the Moon, that the Apollo program contributed to many important discoveries giving clues to the birth and evolution of our cosmic companion.

Tracks to be followed. Robotic rovers – Sojourner, Opportunity, and Spirit – have paved a way to manned exploration of Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell

2. Wet Mars

One of the most intriguing questions in the study of Mars has been and still is the existence of water. It is the most important substance making the difference as well as the similarity between Mars and Earth. The currently cold and arid Mars has experienced a period (or periods) of warmer and wetter climate with a considerably thicker atmosphere (Morris et al. 2010).

The images acquired with the high-resolution cameras of several probes launched during the past decade and a half – Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of NASA, and Mars Express of ESA – and the research conducted on the surface with the rovers – Sojourner, Opportunity, and Spirit – have proved that there has been water on the surface of Mars: lots of water (Carter et al. 2010; Di Achille 2010). And recent studies of the carbon and oxygen isotopes of the atmospheric CO2 suggests that there has been low-temperature interaction between water and rocks throughout the Martian history (Niles et al. 2010).

The surface of Mars is covered with different kinds of signatures of past water from narrow gullies on the walls of craters and slopes of hills and dunes through dried river beds and valleys carved by water to vast, smooth areas reminiscent of ocean floors. However, whether all of these formations are due to water (or ice) is still a matter of dispute, and other explanations like cryoclastic phenomena and gas-supported density flows have been brought forth (Hoffman 2000).

On the pole-facing slopes of the dunes in Russell Crater on the southern hemisphere of Mars there are narrow gullies side by side. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

 

In many cases the surface anomalies – just like the more ordinary features – are seemingly the result of flowing water or melting ice, coupled with perhaps tricks of light and shadow and the propensity of the human imagination to conjure forth not just what is, but what might be. However, dismissing these anomalies as illusions or to assume they are the result of natural geological forces, is not in the spirit of science. Assumptions, be they pro or con, are not the same as facts. Rather, these surface anomalies require serious consideration and investigation which in turn would lead to the advancement of science, and lead to a greater understanding of planetary geology and the cause and origins of these anomalies.

3. Martian Arctic Ocean

The most prominent anomaly of Mars is the dichotomy between the northern and southern hemispheres. The southern highlands are covered with craters of all sizes, the northern lowlands are exceptionally flat and smooth. There is also an average difference of 4 kilometers in their elevations (Kiefer, 2008).

The highland-lowland dichotomy boundary of Mars is at most places – like in this area near Medusa Fossae – very apparent. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

 

One of the theories is that there had been a vast Martian ocean covering most of the northern hemisphere. An ocean of Martian water would explain the smoothness. However, if there had been a Northern ocean, then where are the ancient shorelines? Shorelines should be evident at the borderline between the highlands and the lowlands. Although many have claimed to have detected these palaeoshorelines (Parker et al. 1993), these claims are in most cases controversial to say the least. If there had been ancient oceans, perhaps the shorelines have disappeared after being blanketed by later sedimentation. Or perhaps the failure to find conclusive evidence is due to the insufficient resolution of the imaging instrumentation of the probes. Trained field observers, could provide the answers.

The existence of an ancient ocean is further implied by the distribution of ancient deltas dilineating the margins of the northern lowlands. The level of these deltas is consistent with the possible palaeoshorelines indicated by the analysis of other morphological and topographical features, as well as the distribution and age of valley networks on the surface of Mars (Di Achille 2010).

Also the recent detection of hydrated silicates in the northern plains indicates a past presence of large amounts of water. The silicates have been known to exist on the southern highlands implying wet conditions early in the history of Mars, but now the same goes with the northern highlands. The ancient deposits of these hydrated silicates, being mostly phyllosilicates, excavated at places by impact cratering, are covered with hundreds of metres of later sedimentation (Carter et al. 2010).

Perhaps the answers concerning the existence of the ancient ocean could be obtained by sophisticated high-resolution cameras and deep-range radars onboard an orbiting craft. However, these answers may not be obtained without in-situ exploration, including deep drilling, which would be difficult to accomplish without human presence.

Finding a landing site with the highest potential to give an answer to this question on the existence of an ancient sea might also prove difficult. The borderline between the highlands and lowlands is at many places a very steep slope making it unsuitable for landing a manned craft. However, there is an area with not only an appropriate location, but a wealth of enigmatic features.

4. Cydonian Complex

The first feature to arouse the interest of both the scientific community and the general public was the detection of a “face-like” anomaly in the area known as Cydonia, a plain in a transitional region between heavily cratered southern highlands and the smooth northern lowlands; the so called “Face of Mars”. It was photographed by the Viking 1 Orbiter in July 1976 while making detailed imaging for the selection of the landing site for the Viking 1 Lander.

The unusual mesas of the Cydonia region has led to wild speculation on their origin. The infamous “Face of Mars” is near the lower right-hand corner of this image. [Credit: Mars Express/ESA

The image of the “Face” gained immediately great publicity and a keen interest in, along with various speculations on, the origin of the familiar looking formation. There are strong advocates for the interpretation that this feature with a length of 2,5 kilometres and a height of 250 metres is artificial, being some kind of a vast monument or perhaps a cenotaph. Later images taken by various orbiters having instruments with higher resolution than those onboard Viking 1 has lent credence to the view of the Face being a natural formation, a rocky hill or mesa with crevices on top simulating the features of a giant face staring upward from the Martian surface.

The “Face of Mars” is not the only formation on the Cydonia plain having created both interest and controversy. Some of them have been seen as further evidence for the existence of an ancient, intelligent civilization on Mars. There are numerous formations reminiscent of eroded pyramids, ruined castles, and other structures claimed to have an artificial origin. However, the evidence for the artificiality of these formations, along with the “Face of Mars”, is not nearly conclusive enough, and the general view is that they are natural products of geologic processes. Nevertheless, the structural anomalies on the Cydonia plain are well worth a thorough investigation because of both their fame and the contribution their study would give to our knowledge on Mars and various processes shaping its surface – whatever the outcome.

The exploration of Cydonia would also give information on the nature of the borderline between the rugged south and smooth north. The area is possibly an ancient coastline with several processes having affected its evolution either concurrently or consecutively – or both. Landing a manned mission on the Cydonia plain would – in addition to the obvious impact on the imagination of the public and media – enable extensive studies of the ancient shoreline and its alterations. This could also shed light on the climate change which caused the transformation of a temperate planet into a frozen celestial object, a kind of “Museum of Water”. Situated on the mid-latitudes (40°N) Cydonia would also be an ideal target for the studies on the effects of the variability in the obliquity of the rotational axis of Mars.

At the moment the inclination is very close to that of Earth – 25°11’ of Mars compared with 23°59’ of Earth – but it has been known a long time that there is a variability of at least 20 degrees over a period of approximately 100 000 years (Ward 1973). However, the variability seems to be chaotic, and during periods of tens of millions of years the inclination could have changed several tens of degrees (Touma et al. 1993). Because of the chaotic nature of the variability it is impossible to track it precisely for more than a few million years into the past, but with statistical methods it is possible to analyze the history of these variations. The value for the maximum of the obliquity is 82°, and the probability for the obliquity having reached 60° during the past 1 billion years is 63 %, and during the past 3 billion years as high as 89 % (Laskar et al. 2004).

This kind of variation has had a dramatic effect on the climate of Mars in the past, and most probably is still having: the variability of the inclination is continuous. While the inclination is small and the planet rotates in an upright position, the polar areas receive much less solar energy than the lower latitudes, and are thus much colder. When the inclination increases, the poles receiving more solar energy warm up, but the equatorial regions cool down.

This variability is the probable cause for the presence of the large reservoirs of near-surface ice in high latitudes of both northern and southern hemispheres of Mars. While the obliquity is high, there is an accumulation of ice, most probably even in the form of glaciers, to the equatorial regions, but during low obliquity, the sublimation of these reservoirs results in deposition of ice to the high latitudes and polar regions (Levrard et al. 2004; Forget et al. 2006).

With a thicker atmosphere in the past this has affected the state of water and consecutively the sea level of the Arctic Ocean, but also the migration of water from the polar areas to the mid- and low- latitudes (Haberle et al., 2004). This in turn could be inferred from the current depth and thickness of permafrost present also beneath the surface of Cydonia.

5. Noctic Labyrinthus

Noctis Labyrinthus just south of the equator of Mars is a place of major upheaval – or “downfall” to be precise. It is an area of large mesas, broad and flat-topped mountains and hills with steep clifflike slopes, called “chaotic terrain”. According to early theories this chaotic terrain formed when large amounts of subsurface ice suddenly melted with the water flowing off (Carr and Schaber 1977) or groundwater being released from aquifers to create large outflows (Carr 1979), and the terrain collapsing as a result.

Noctis Labyrinthus east of the Tharsis region is a large area of “chaotic terrain”. [Credit: Viking/NASA/JPL/USGS

 

However, there is still no final word on the process creating these features, but water has certainly played a key role in the evolution of the area as shown by the hydrated minerals found in the area (Thollot et al. 2010). Presumably the melting of ice was caused by volcanic activity: Noctis Labyrinthus is adjacent to the Tharsis highlands having many giant volcanoes. An examination of this vast and varied area would yield information on the similar features observed in a smaller scale, like Reull Vallis close to the Hadriaca Patera volcano and several others.In between the flat-topped mesas of Noctis Labyrinthus there are deep depressions formed by outflow of water and collapse of the ground.[Credit: Mars Express/ESA]

Landing a manned mission in Noctis Labyrinthus would offer an opportunity to study the origin and evolution of the chaotic terrain characteristic of the area. It would be a challenge to make a pin-point landing to avoid the hazards of the rough surface. However, in 1969, Apollo 12 landed right on target, less than 200 meters from the Surveyor 3 probe sent to the Moon 2,5 years earlier. Pin-point landings on a distant celestial body are not impossible.

The average depth of Noctis Labyrinthus is about 5 km (Bistachi et al. 2004), so the atmospheric pressure, albeit still very low, would still be above average. Whether the net effect of it would be positive or negative as to the manned mission, is uncertain. Some areas of exploration like meteorology would benefit from the local climate of the valleys – condensate clouds made of water-ice crystals form in this region rather regularly – but this is also an area of dust storm activity.

Early morning water clouds in and around the canyons of Noctis Labyrinthus.[Credit:  Viking/USGS/JPL/NASA]

Noctis Labyrinthus could have a definite benefit for a manned mission. There is a possibility for an existence of caves, carved either by the flash floods caused by the sudden melting of subsurface ice, or volcanic flows forming lava tunnels. If existent, they would offer a natural shelter against the ultraviolet radiation of the Sun and the bombardment of the cosmic rays. Otherwise they both would require either a heavily shielded landing craft or a base camp dug beneath the surface. Because of increased mass of the craft these alternatives would make a manned mission more challenging both technically and economically. Noctis Labyrinthus would be interesting also because of its proximity to two extensive surface features with a history still largely unknown: Tharsis and Valles Marineris. The former is evidently of volcanic origin – there are four giant volcanoes on top of Tharsis – and Valles Marineris was formed by rift faults in the crust of Mars, thus being similar to the East African Rift Valley (Hauber et al. 2010), which has later been expanded because of erosion and massive landslides: it is a sign of a kind of “failed” tectonism. It is still unknown whether they are related to each other, and if so, how; and whether either is caused by the other, or are they both caused by some process even more global than either of them.

6. Polar Expedition

Landing on the polar regions would offer an excellent opportunity to explore the enigmatic and simultaneously variable surface features on the high latitudes of Mars. There are theories on how the polar formations like polygons, “spiders”, “forests”, and “swiss cheese”, related to the sublimation of either water or CO2 ice or both, and also larger, but still continuously evolving features like dune fields are formed, but to organize geological field trips to the most interesting of these areas might answer the question of the origin of these formations.

Geysers of CO2 carrying dust from the subsurface create curious patterns in the polar areas. Credit: MRO/NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
The cause of “Swiss cheese terrain” found only near the southern polar cap are believed to be the differences in the rate of the seasonal changes of the CO2 and water ices. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

 

 

Polygons on the “patterned ground” are reminiscent of the phenomena in the Arctic regions of Earth originating from the changes in the subsurface ice. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

 

The polar regions of Mars are under continuous change. With the seasons the carbon dioxide migrates through the tenuous atmosphere from one pole to the other giving rise to a regular variation in the appearance of the polar caps (Smith et al. 2009). While the southern cap completely disappears during the spring of the southern hemisphere, the residual water ice of the northern one holds through the somewhat colder spring and summer of the northern hemisphere.

The retreating ice is annually leaving behind strange formations the nature and especially the birth processes of which are still largely unknown. The future missions to Mars will – and most probably has to – “live off the land” to the largest possible extent, so landing on or near the polar regions would be a viable option. Water in the form a permafrost is found more or less everywhere on Mars, but on the polar regions, as the Phoenix lander in 2008 proved, it is only few centimeters below the surface thus making it easy to reach and utilize (Smith et al 2009).

Phoenix probe landed on water ice covered with only a thin layer of dust and sand. Credit: Kenneth Kramer, Marco Di Lorenzo, NASA/JPL/UA,Max Placnk Institute

 

However, landing on the polar regions might prove too hazardous because of potential dust storms, landslides, and the CO2 ice covering the ground in winter. To avoid any unnecessary and foreseeable risks it might be more practical to establish a base camp on a safer area, but still within easy reach of the places of interest. This would require reliable and fast enough mode of transportation for the astronauts to be able to explore the area within the time-limit set by the duration of both the stay on the surface of Mars and the changing seasons.

7. Acidalian Mud

A question even more intriguing than the past and present existence of water on Mars – but closely related to it – is the one about life on Mars. Despite promising, yet controversial findings in meteorites originated from Mars (Thomas-Keprta 2009), there are no definite proofs neither for the existence nor non-existence of life.

The surface conditions of present-day Mars are very hostile to life or any organic matter, but in the warmer and wetter past there might have been abodes for life to emerge. Whether the conditions have been favorable for long enough time for life to evolve is another matter of dispute, but if there has been life of any kind, based on the current knowlegde it must have been related with the existence of water. One of the potentially promising areas for finding signs of life is Acidalia Planitia. Along with several other areas on the northern lowlands like Utopia, Isidis, and Chryse Planitia, Acidalia is covered in many places with formations resembling very much the mud volcanoes found on Earth. The latest research implies that the number of these potential mud volcanoes is almost 20 000, perhaps even 40 000 (Oehler and Allen 2010).

[Image:  Possible mud volcanoes found on Mars could give clues to the ancient Martian life – if there was any. Credit: HiRISE/MRO/LPL (U. Arizona)/NASA]

The mud volcanoes are formed by pressurized subsurface gas or liquid erupting to the surface carrying with it material from depths of up the several kilometres. It is possible that there has been – or even today could be – reservoirs of liquid water beneath the thick layer of permafrost; they could have been favorable for bacterial life similar to the extremophiles on Earth. If this is the case, there might still be organic material to be found in the mud and gravel transported to the surface by the eruptions.

Albeit being relatively young, perhaps late Hesperian or early Amazonian, decuded from the fact that they overlap older formations (Tanaka et al. 2005), the mud volcanoes of Acidalia are still two to three billion years old. The strong radiation and surface chemistry would have destroyed any evidence of organic matter, but inside the flat domes with diameters of one kilometre and heights of some 200 metres on average (Oehler and Allen 2010), there might still be some evidence of life to be found. However, reaching it would require, as in the case of the ancient shoreline of the Arctic Ocean, an expedition equipped with drilling machinery.

8. Clays of Mawrth Vallis

One of the oldest valleys on Mars, Mawrth Vallis, could also be potential site for finding signs of ancient Martian life. Recently is has been observed to bear evidence for a prolonged existence of aquatic environment very early in the history of Mars, when the climate of the planet was more temperate, and potentially suitable for life (Poulet et al. 2005).

A stable and long-term presence of large quantities of liquid water is implied by the deposits of hydrated minerals the formation of which requires wet conditions. However, there are different kinds of hydrated minerals, namely phyllosilicates and hydrated sulphates, which have their origins in different kinds of processes. Phyllosilicates, for example clay, are formed by alteration of minerals of magmatic origin having been in contact with water for a considerable length of time. On the other hand, hydrated sulphates are deposits formed from salted water, and their formation requires acidic environment, but not extended periods of contact with water.

[Image: Mawrth Vallis has Noachian deposits of phyllosilicate minerals with a possibility to find evidence on Martian life. Credit: HiRISE/MRO/LPL (U. Arizona)/NASA]

The detection of phyllosilicates in Mawrth Vallis strongly implies that there has been water on the surface of Mars for extended periods of time in the earliest, the Noachian era, of its evolution, long before the global climate change making Mars a less habitable planet. On Earth the clay minerals are capable of preserving microscopic life, so a thorough examination of the phyllosilicates on Mars could give an answer to the question concerning ancient life on the red planet.

9. Olympus Mons

Another possible landing site for a manned mission with a great potential to capture the imagination of the general public, but not in anyway without scientific benefits would be Olympus Mons, the highest mountain in the Solar System. It could be a key to several questions concerning both the ancient and recent history of Mars.

[Image:  Olympus Mons, the highest mountain in the Solar System, has possibly been active until rather recently, only few million years ago. Credit: Viking/USGS/JPL/NASA]

Olympus Mons is the greatest of the Tharsis volcanoes not only by height, but by the volume of erupted lava and by the time span there has been eruptions. The formation of the mountain is very similar with those on the Hawaiian islands, but because of the lack of plate tectonics on Mars, the volcanic hot spot has been immobile, and the lava has accumulated into just one gigantic mountain.

Based on research made on the aureole surrounding the mountain the origins of Olympus Mons have been dated to the Hesperian era (Fuller and Head 2003), so it is at least 2 billion years old, but there are volcanic flows with an age of just tens of millions, perhaps only few million years (Neukum et al. 2004). In addition to being active until geologically very recently, the volcanic activity has been episodic.

Making detailed studies on the different lava layers on Olympus Mons would enable dating the different stages in the evolution of the mountain with a better accuracy than the current estimates based on crater counts, and trying to find the cause for the periodical behaviour – and possibly for the formation of the Tharsis region as a whole.

Olympus Mons is often shrouded with CO2 ice clouds making it an ideal site also for meteorological observations. The nature of the clouds – composition, density, temperature – could be measured readily with a possibility to take samples of the ice crystals making up the clouds. The size of the mountain is such, that it has a major effect on the air currents and wind patterns in the atmosphere of Mars, and consequently on the Martian weather (Wolkenberg 2008). To make direct observations on the spot of origin of these effects would help develop more detailed models for both global and local weather phenomena.

All this could be done with robotic probes, but Olympus Mons might offer an extra benefit for a future base camp. The slopes of the mountain could hide a number of caves formed by collapsed lava tunnels. Just like in the case of Noctic Labyrinthus these would offer a natural shelter against the harsh radiation environment on the surface of Mars. The great height of Olympus Mons would also keep a base camp well above all but the largest, global dust storms.

A mountain with a summit rising 25 kilometres higher than the surrounding landscape might appear as an extremely challenging site for any, especially manned, mission and the activities related with it. In reality the slopes of the mountain – apart from the steep cliffs especially on the eastern flank of the mountain – are very gentle, with a gradient of only few degrees. Together with the low gravity of Mars of some 40 % that of Earth this would result in an easy traversing on Olympus Mons, not so much going uphill or downhill, but only walking or driving around.

The obvious downside of Olympus Mons as a potential landing site for a manned mission is the very probable lack of subsurface ice to be exploited by the expedition. If there were any ice, it would be very deep in the ground and practically unattainable without very heavy machinery.

10. Selecting the Target

Making the selection between various options for the landing site of a manned mission to Mars aimed at exploring the surface anomalies will not be a simple task. The arguments to be taken into account include both the safety and practicality of the mission, and the possibility to make in-situ studies with scientific results increasing our knowledge on the anomalies specifically and on the evolution of Mars in general. However, trying to meet these criteria is an effort worth making.

There are many reasons why future manned missions to Mars must include among their primary objectives the exploration and examination of these surface anomalies: to explore their true nature, to solve their origin, to find out their importance in the geologic evolution of the planet, and – not the least important of the reasons – to feed the imagination of general public and keep up public interest in continued exploration of our planetary neighbor.

[Credit: Journal of  Cosmology]

Spirit Finds Evidence of Subsurface Water

The ground where NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit became stuck last year holds evidence that water, perhaps as snow melt, trickled into the subsurface fairly recently and on a continuing basis.Stratified soil layers with different compositions close to the surface led the rover science team to propose that thin films of water may have entered the ground from frost or snow. The seepage could have happened during cyclical climate changes in periods when Mars tilted farther on its axis. The water may have moved down into the sand, carrying soluble minerals deeper than less soluble ones. Spin-axis tilt varies over timescales of hundreds of thousands of years.

The relatively insoluble minerals near the surface include what is thought to be hematite, silica and gypsum. Ferric sulfates, which are more soluble, appear to have been dissolved and carried down by water. None of these minerals are exposed at the surface, which is covered by wind-blown sand and dust. The lack of exposures at the surface indicates the preferential dissolution of ferric sulfates must be a relatively recent and ongoing process since wind has been systematically stripping soil and altering landscapes in the region Spirit has been examining.

Analysis of these findings appears in a report in the Journal of Geophysical Research published by Arvidson and 36 co-authors about Spirit’s operations from late 2007 until just before the rover stopped communicating in March.The twin Mars rovers finished their three-month prime missions in April 2004, then kept exploring in bonus missions. One of Spirit’s six wheels quit working in 2006.In April 2009, Spirit’s left wheels broke through a crust at a site called “Troy” and churned into soft sand. A second wheel stopped working seven months later. Spirit could not obtain a position slanting its solar panels toward the sun for the winter, as it had for previous winters. Engineers anticipated it would enter a low-power, silent hibernation mode, and the rover stopped communicating March 22. Spring begins next month at Spirit’s site, and NASA is using the Deep Space Network and the Mars Odyssey orbiter to listen if the rover reawakens.

Researchers took advantage of Spirit’s months at Troy last year to examine in great detail soil layers the wheels had exposed, and also neighboring surfaces. Spirit made 13 inches of progress in its last 10 backward drives before energy levels fell too low for further driving in February. Those drives exposed a new area of soil for possible examination if Spirit does awaken and its robotic arm is still usable. With insufficient solar energy during the winter, Spirit goes into a deep-sleep hibernation mode where all rover systems are turned off, including the radio and survival heaters. All available solar array energy goes into charging the batteries and keeping the mission clock running. The rover is expected to have experienced temperatures colder than it has ever before, and it may not survive. If Spirit does get back to work, the top priority is a multi-month study that can be done without driving the rover. The study would measure the rotation of Mars through the Doppler signature of the stationary rover’s radio signal with enough precision to gain new information about the planet’s core. The rover Opportunity has been making steady progress toward a large crater, Endeavour, which is now approximately 8 kilometers (5 miles) away.

Spirit, Opportunity, and other NASA Mars missions have found evidence of wet Martian environments billions of years ago that were possibly favorable for life. The Phoenix Mars Lander in 2008 and observations by orbiters since 2002 have identified buried layers of water ice at high and middle latitudes and frozen water in polar ice caps. These newest Spirit findings contribute to an accumulating set of clues that Mars may still have small amounts of liquid water at some periods during ongoing climate cycles.

MAVEN Mission to Investigate Martian Atmosphere Mystery

The Red Planet bleeds. Not blood, but its atmosphere, slowly trickling away to space. The culprit is our sun, which is using its own breath, the solar wind, and its radiation to rob Mars of its air. The crime may have condemned the planet’s surface, once apparently promising for life, to a cold and sterile existence.

Features on Mars resembling dry riverbeds, and the discovery of minerals that form in the presence of water, indicate that Mars once had a thicker atmosphere and was warm enough for liquid water to flow on the surface. However, somehow that thick atmosphere got lost in space. It appears Mars has been cold and dry for billions of years, with an atmosphere so thin, any liquid water on the surface quickly boils away while the sun’s ultraviolet radiation scours the ground. Such harsh conditions are the end of the road for known forms of life. Although it’s possible that martian life went underground, where liquid water may still exist and radiation can’t reach.

The lead suspect for the theft is the sun, and its favorite M.O. may be the solar wind. All planets in our solar system are constantly blasted by the solar wind, a thin stream of electrically charged gas that continuously blows from the sun’s surface into space. On Earth, our planet’s global magnetic field shields our atmosphere by diverting most of the solar wind around it. The solar wind’s electrically charged particles, ions and electrons, have difficulty crossing magnetic fields. Mars can’t protect itself from the solar wind because it no longer has a shield, the planet’s global magnetic field is dead.

Mars lost its global magnetic field in its youth billions of years ago. Once its planet-wide magnetic field disappeared, Mars’ atmosphere was exposed to the solar wind and most of it could have been gradually stripped away. “Fossil” magnetic fields remaining in ancient surfaces and other local areas on Mars don’t provide enough coverage to shield much of the atmosphere from the solar wind.

Although the solar wind might be the primary method, like an accomplished burglar, the sun’s emissions can steal the martian atmosphere in many ways. However, most follow a basic M.O., the solar wind and the sun’s ultraviolet radiation turns the uncharged atoms and molecules in Mars’ upper atmosphere into electrically charged particles (ions). Once electrically charged, electric fields generated by the solar wind carry them away. The electric field is produced by the motion of the charged, electrically conducting solar wind across the interplanetary, solar-produced magnetic field, the same dynamic generators use to produce electrical power.

An exception to this dominant M.O. are atoms and molecules that have enough speed from solar heating to simply run away, they remain electrically neutral, but become hot enough to escape Mars’ gravity. Also, solar extreme ultraviolet radiation can be absorbed by molecules, breaking them into their constituent atoms and giving each atom enough energy that it might be able to escape from the planet. There are other suspects. Mars has more than 20 ancient craters larger than 600 miles across, scars from giant impacts by asteroids the size of small moons. This bombardment could have blasted large amounts of the martian atmosphere into space. However, huge martian volcanoes that erupted after the impacts, like Olympus Mons, could have replenished the martian atmosphere by venting massive amounts of gas from the planet’s interior.

MAVEN Orbit

It’s possible that the hijacked martian air was an organized crime, with both impacts and the solar wind contributing. Without the protection of its magnetic shield, any replacement martian atmosphere that may have issued from volcanic eruptions eventually would also have been stripped away by the solar wind.  Earlier Mars spacecraft missions have caught glimpses of the heist. For example, flows of ions from Mars’ upper atmosphere have been seen by both NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express spacecraft.

Previous observations gave us ‘proof of the crime’ but only provided tantalizing hints at how the sun pulls it off — the various ways Mars can lose its atmosphere to solar activity,” said Joseph Grebowsky of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “MAVEN will examine all known ways the sun is currently swiping the Martian atmosphere, and may discover new ones as well. It will also watch how the loss changes as solar activity changes over a year. Linking different loss rates to changes in solar activity will let us go back in time to estimate how quickly solar activity eroded the Martian atmosphere as the sun evolved.

As the martian atmosphere thinned, the planet got drier as well, because water vapor in the atmosphere was also lost to space, and because any remaining water froze out as the temperatures dropped when the atmosphere disappeared. MAVEN can discover how much water has been lost to space by measuring hydrogen isotope ratios.

Isotopes are heavier versions of an element. For example, deuterium is a heavy version of hydrogen. Normally, two atoms of hydrogen join to an oxygen atom to make a water molecule, but sometimes the heavy and rare, deuterium takes a hydrogen atom’s place.  On Mars, hydrogen escapes faster because it is lighter than deuterium. Since the lighter version escapes more often, over time, the martian atmosphere has less and less hydrogen compared to the amount of deuterium remaining. The martian atmosphere therefore becomes richer and richer in deuterium.

The MAVEN team will measure the amount of hydrogen compared to the amount of deuterium in Mars’ upper atmosphere, which is the planet’s present-day hydrogen to deuterium (H/D) ratio. They will compare it to the ratio Mars had when it was young — the original H/D ratio. The original ratio is estimated from observations of the H/D ratio in comets and asteroids, which are believed to be pristine, “fossil” remnants of our solar system’s formation. Comparing the present and original H/D ratios will allow the team to calculate how much hydrogen, and therefore water, has been lost over Mars’ lifetime. For example, if the team discovers the martian atmosphere is ten times richer in deuterium today, the planet’s original quantity of water must have been at least ten times greater than that seen today.

MAVEN will also help determine how much martian atmosphere has been lost over time by measuring the isotope ratios of other elements in the air, such as nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon. MAVEN is scheduled for launch between November 18 and December 7, 2013. If it is launched November 18, it will arrive at Mars on September 16, 2014 for its year-long mission.

MAVEN in short:

  • The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, scheduled for launch in late 2013, will be the first mission devoted to understanding the Martian upper atmosphere.
  • The goal of MAVEN is to determine the role that loss of atmospheric gas to space played in changing the Martian climate through time. Where did the atmosphere – and the water – go?
  • MAVEN will determine how much of the Martian atmosphere has been lost over time by measuring the current rate of escape to space and gathering enough information about the relevant processes to allow extrapolation backward in time.


[Credit: NASA]

Presence of Liquid Water and Organics on Mars

Mars is fascinating especially when we are watching movies e.g. Mars Attack etc. As I’ve already depicted prudentially that life on Mars is more probably, lurking with life in some way, it could be either in the form of halophiles or archea or algae. Well, one can’t pronounce presence of life just based on surveys of some squaremiles, more seriously it needs a broad exploration phase. What if any alien probe is landing on Death Valley(though death valley is rich in microbial life but conditions on mars are harsher than on death valley) to search for life on Earth? Probably the data obtained from that probe will elude that no life on planet Earth while the case is conversed. It is more easy to identify the life if you are sure what kind of life could be otherwise you are putting your feet in quagmire from where there is no chance except serendipity. However, that is broadly covered up in other articles(see, Extraterrestrial Life). Data from NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander suggest liquid water has interacted with the Martian surface throughout the planet’s history and into modern times. The new research also provides new evidence that volcanic activity has persisted on the Red Planet into geologically recent times, several million years ago. Although the lander, which arrived on Mars on May 25, 2008, is no longer operating, NASA scientists continue to analyze the data obtained from lander.

These recent findings are based on data about the planet’s carbon dioxide, which makes up about 95 percent of the Martian atmosphere. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is like a chemical spy. It infiltrates every part of the surface of Mars and can indicate the presence of water and its history.

Phoenix precisely measured isotopes of carbon and oxygen in the carbon dioxide of the Martian atmosphere. Isotopes are variants of the same element with different atomic weights. The findings were published in Thursday’s online edition of the journal Science. The paper explains the ratios of stable isotopes and their implications for the history of Martian water and volcanoes. Isotopes can be used as a chemical signature that can tell us where something came from, and what kinds of events it has experienced. This chemical signature suggests that liquid water primarily existed at temperatures near freezing and that hydrothermal systems similar to Yellowstone’s hot springs have been rare throughout the planet’s past.

[Image Details: Instruments on NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander included the Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer, right, which analyzed the atmosphere, as well as soil samples.]

Measurements concerning carbon dioxide showed Mars is a much more active planet than previously thought. The results imply Mars has replenished its atmospheric carbon dioxide relatively recently, and the carbon dioxide has reacted with liquid water present on the surface.Measurements were performed by an instrument on Phoenix called the Evolved Gas Analyzer. The instrument was capable of doing more accurate analysis of carbon dioxide than similar instruments on NASA’s Viking landers in the 1970s. The Viking Program provided the only previous Mars isotope data sent back to Earth. The low gravity and lack of a magnetic field on Mars mean that as carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere, it will be lost to space. This process favors loss of a lighter isotope named carbon-12 compared to carbon-13. If Martian carbon dioxide had experienced only this process of atmospheric loss without some additional process replenishing carbon-12, the ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12 would be much higher than what Phoenix measured. This suggests the Martian atmosphere recently has been replenished with carbon dioxide emitted from volcanoes, and volcanism has been an active process in Mars’ recent past. However, a volcanic signature is not present in the proportions of two other isotopes, oxygen-18 and oxygen-16, found in Martian carbon dioxide. The finding suggests the carbon dioxide has reacted with liquid water, which enriched the oxygen in carbon dioxide with the heavier oxygen-18.

The authors of paper theorize this oxygen isotopic signature indicates liquid water has been present on the Martian surface recently enough and abundantly enough to affect the composition of the current atmosphere. The findings do not reveal specific locations or dates of liquid water and volcanic vents, but recent occurrences of those conditions provide the best explanations for the isotope proportions.
It is alluring for me since I love to ponder into extraterrestrial life besides working on string theories and particle physics. I hope, perhaps one day, we’ll find signs of multicellular intelligent life. Waiting for that day…
[Source: Phoenix Mission Page]

Mars Voyage Won’t be Good for Us

International Space Station assembly EVA made ...

Image via Wikipedia

If a human ever sets foot on Mars, will it be a giant step or an exhausted shuffle? Long-term space flight so weakens fitness that an astronaut heading to the Red Planet may lose up to half the power in key muscles in the course of the mission, scientists have found. The loss – equivalent to a crew member aged between 30 and 50 returning home with the muscles of an 80-year-old – would add a major danger to a trip already laden with peril, they said.

Muscles weaken at zero gravity

Researchers led by Robert Fitts of Marquette University, Wisconsin, took tiny samples of tissue from the calf muscles of nine U.S. and Russian astronauts who spent around six months on the International Space Station (ISS). The biopsies, taken 45 days before launch and on the day of return, showed dramatically how muscles atrophy in zero gravity. The losses in fibre mass, force and power translated into a decline of more than 40% in the capacity for physical work, Fitts reported.

Biggest muscles suffered the most

Ironically, beefing up before the trip had no impact on muscle loss. In fact, crew members who began with the biggest muscles turned out to have the biggest decline in muscle fitness.

Under one NASA scenario, a return trip to Mars using current rocket technology would take around three years, if a one-year stay on the planet is factored in.

If so, the decline in the most-affected muscles such as the calf could approach 50 percent, said Fitts.

Too weak to evacuate

Astronauts would tire faster doing even routine tasks, especially if they donned a space suit, and on returning to terrestrial gravity they could be so weak they might be unable to evacuate their spacecraft quickly in an emergency. Fitts said the results should not discourage humans from venturing farther into space. He Goes on:

Manned missions to Mars represent the next frontier, as the Western Hemisphere of our planet was 800 years ago. Without exploration, we will stagnate and fail to advance our understanding of the Universe.

Even so, the findings clearly show the need to improve fitness regimes in space so that astronauts are exposed to high-resistance exercise and the kinds of motions they experience on Earth, he said. Muscle loss adds to the long list of hazards facing a trip to Mars. In addition to technical dangers, astronauts face cancer-causing damage to DNA from cosmic radiation, loss of bone density and mental stress from prolonged incarceration.

In June, six men from Europe, Russia and China were locked away in a mock spaceship in a Moscow research institute for a year and a half to simulate a manned mission to Mars. The 520-day experiment comprises 250 days for the outward trip, 240 days for the return but only 30 days on the Martian surface.

[Via: ComosMagazine]

Analysis of Evidence of Life On Mars

Mars, our neighboring planet is flourishing with extraterrestrial life. Here are some really credible evidences which suggests, there is life on Mars. A new research paper by Gilbert V. Levin, has proposed this provocative series of evidences.

1. The Viking landers carried nine courses of the Labeled Release experiment (LR) designed to detect any metabolizing microorganisms that might be present on the martian surface. The LR was designed to drop a nutrient solution of organic compounds labeled with radioactive carbon atoms into a soil sample taken from the surface of Mars and placed into a small test cell. A radiation detector then monitored over time for the evolution of radioactive gas from the sample as evidence of metabolism: namely, if microorganisms were metabolizing the nutrients they had been given. When the experiment was conducted on both Viking landers, it gave positive results almost immediately. The protocol called for a control in the event of a positive response. Accordingly, duplicate soil samples were inserted into fresh cells, heated for three hours at 160 ºC to sterilize them (the control procedure established for all Viking biology experiments), allowed to cool and then tested. These courses produced virtually no response,
thus completing the pre-mission criteria for the detection of microbial life. All LR results support, or are consistent with, the presence of living microorganisms. Yet between 1976 and late 2006 life on Mars remained a subject of debate, with the scientific consensus being negative because of the following arguments:
  • The Viking organic analysis instrument (GCMS), an abbreviated gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer designed to identify the organic material widely presumed to be present on Mars, found no organic molecules. After years of discussion and experimentation, a consensus was reached explaining this negative result as a lack of sensitivity.
  • “UV destroys life and organics”. Yet sampling soil from under a rock on Mars demonstrated that UV light was not inducing the LR activity detected.
  • “Strong oxidants were present that destroy life and organics”. Findings  by the Viking Magnetic Properties Experiment showed that the surface material of Mars contains a large magnetic component, evidence against a highly oxidizing condition. Further, three Earth-based IR observations, by the ESA orbiter  failed to detect the putative oxidant in any amount that could cause the LR results, and, most recently, data from the Rover Opportunity have shown Mars surface iron to be not completely oxidized (ferric) – but to occur mostly in the ferrous form which would not be expected in a highly oxidizing environment.
  • “Too much too soon”. The LR positive responses and their reaction kinetics were said to be those of a first order reaction, without the lag or exponential phases seen in classic microbial growth curves, all of which seemed to argue for a simple chemical reaction. However, terrestrial LR experiments on a variety of soils produced response rates with the  kinetics and the range of amplitudes of the LR on Mars, thereby offsetting this argument.
  • Lack of a new surge of gas upon injection of fresh medium. Although 2nd injection responsiveness was not part of the LR life detection criteria, the lack of a new surge of gas upon injection of fresh medium on an active sample was interpreted as evidence against biology. However, a previous test of bonded, NASA-supplied Antarctic soil, No. 664, containing less than 10 viable cells/g , had shown this same type of response to a 2nd injection. The failure of the 2nd injection to elicit a response can be attributed to the organisms in the active sample having died sometime after the 1st injection, during the latter part of Cycle 1. The effect  of the 2nd injection was to wet the soil, causing it to absorb headspace gas. The gradual reemergence of the gas into the headspace with time occurred as the system came to equilibrium.
  • “There can be no liquid water on the surface of Mars”. Since November and December 2006, the accumulated evidence shows that liquid water exists in soil even if only as a thin film. Viking, itself, gave strong evidence [] of the presence of liquid water when the rise in the temperature of its footpad, responding to the rising sun, halted at 273 degrees K. Snow or frost is seen in Viking images of the landing site (e.g., Viking Lander Image 21I093). Pathfinder has shown that the surface atmosphere of Mars exceeds 20 oC part of the day, providing transient conditions for liquid water.Together, these observations constitute  strong evidence for the diurnal presence of liquid water. In explaining the stickiness of the soil, MER scientists have said that it “might contain tiny globules of liquid water,” or “might contain brine”. Other images of Mars show current, if intermittent, rivulet activity. On the Earth’s South Polar Cap and within permafrost in the Arctic there is liquid water: even in those frozen places, very thin films of liquid water exist among the interstices of ice and minerals, enough to sustain an ecology involving highly differentiated species.
  • “Cosmic radiation destroys life on Mars”. a recent report [8] calculated the incoming flow of both galactic cosmic rays particles (GCR) and solar energetic protons (SEP) over a wide energy range. As a result one may acknowledge that -without even invoking natural selection to enhance radiation  protection and damage repair- the radiation incident to the surface of Mars appears trivial for the survival of numerous terrestrial-like microorganisms. With respect to the near-term effect of the radiation, when Surveyor’s camera was returned  from the Moon after being in its much-harsherthan- Mars radiation fields for forty months, it was found to contain viable microorganisms. However, the point was then made that exposures of constantly frozen microorganisms to this flux for millions to billions of years would have damaged their DNA and its repair mechanism to the point where survival could not occur. In this regard, Viking and the Pathfinder thermal data demonstrate that, at least at the three widely separated locations of those landers, prolonged freezing is not the case.

2. Those arguments should have been satisfied with the cited data. If not, additional evidence added an even richer context in support of the LR results. Main items are listed as follows.

3. Further supporting evidence includes the possible presence, on some of the Martian rocks, of desert varnish, a coating which on Earth is of microbial origin or contains products generated by microorganisms – an observation originally made by Viking on which several recent articles have rekindled interest. Adding to this rising tide of facts supporting the detection of life by the Viking LR experiment are the recent findings in the Martian atmosphere of methane, formaldehyde, and, possibly, ammonia, gases frequently involved in microbial metabolism. The existence of the short half-lived, UV-labile methane requires a source of continual replacement. Continual volcanic activity, a potential non-biological source of methane, has not been indicated by thermal mapping of the entire planet. In the Earth’s atmosphere, methane is sustained primarily by biological metabolism. Moreover, the methane detected on Mars was associated with water vapor in the lower atmosphere, consistent with, if not indicative of, extant life.
4. As still further evidence, the kinetics of evolution of labeled gas in the Viking LR experiment indicates the possibility of a circadian rhythm, daily over the length of the experiments, up to 90 sols. However, as of now, these are only indications, not statistically significant. However, another paper , using a non linear approach, concluded,“Our results strongly support the hypothesis of a biologic origin of the gas collected by the LR experiment from the Martian soil.” A new study, in which the authors of the initial papers and the most recent paper are collaborating, is currently underway to further investigate the statistical significance for that conclusion.
5. Huge recent advances in the research of the variety of extremophiles on Earth have added very strong import to the current context. Recently, an expert in soil science from the Netherlands communicated to the congress of the European Geosciences Union that the discovery of the recent detection of phyllosilicate clays on Mars may indicate pedogenesis processes, or soil (as opposed to regolith) development, extended over the entire surface of Mars. This interpretation views most of Mars surface as active soil, colored red, as on Earth, by eons of widespread microbial activity.
6. Another new, potentially important new insight is the proposed H2O2-H2O life hypothesis , namely the possibility that the Martian life solvent, in the organisms detected by the LR may be H2O2- H2O rather than H2O. Additionally, it is conjectured [1] that layers of structured H2O (probably vitreous, rather than crystalline, at the relevant temperatures) adsorbed on cytoskeletal/organel analogs may compartment any H2O2-H2O mixtures.
7. Collectively, these new findings and analyses, compiled with the LR data, strongly indicate microbial life on Mars. This development should re-focus the analysis of the Viking Mission results to working out the broadest physiological details required by the organisms in Marciana.
The analysis of the whole evidence thus constitutes a situation very different from that of only a few months ago. With the biological nomenclature of Gillevinia straata, the possibility of contamination of Marciana must be considered. This may have occurred in the missions over the past decades in which the sterilization procedures were abandoned in the belief that there was no life on Mars. This and other biosecurity concerns  must be evaluated. Also an epistemological objection that he has long posed, that Jakobia organisms cannot be proven extant by detection of their components alone, but only through the detection of their active metabolism [Comentario editorial: la cuestión epistemológica en la detección de vida en Marte], would seem to take on new significance. He has proposed a detailed approach that could enable the first determination of whether the Martian micro-organisms are similar to our life forms or truly alien[Modern Myths Concerning Life on Mars]. Further, comparative biological studies and the classification of extraterrestrial organisms could be accomplished with metabolism-detection experiments in which environmental and nutrient variables were studied. With the first extraterrestrial creature discovered and named, our sense of responsibility in this endeavor should be heightened. Really an interesting analysis.
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