Saturday, November 26, 2011

Is There Life On Mars? Are We Martians?!

Ready for Launch


Curiosity (right) Compared to Rovers Opportunity
(left) and Sojourner (center)

My Name's Going to Mars... Again!

Gale Crater

Landing Site Inside Gale Crater

The Way to Land a Really Big Rover


In a little less than three hours from now The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) sitting on top of an Atlas V541 rocket (supplied by a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing) will blast off from Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. As it's name implies its destination is our second closest planetary neighbor, Mars. If everything goes well (Earth has launched more than three dozen missions to Mars, which is more like our planet than any other in the solar-system. Yet fewer than half of those missions have succeeded) it should take approximately eight and a half months to get there, hopefully landing inside Gale Crater between August 5th, and 20th of next year. It's total cost to the American tax payers is around 2.5 billion dollars... American, none of that Hong Kong stuff.
The MSL contains a big rover inside called "Curiosity," named so because it wants to learn things, mainly what it wants to learn is if Mars could have evolved microbial life at some point in it's history, which would be a very interesting discovery. It won't be looking for actual present day life unfortunately, but only if the conditions existed for life to once have come about on our smaller neighbor.
Why do we care if there was once life on Mars, or if there is now, and why are we spending so much money to find out? Good question dear readers, I'm glad you asked. It is very important because as of now we only have one example of life evolving anywhere in the universe, and that's here on Earth. If we found life on another planet like Mars, or Saturn's moon Titan which has its own atmosphere, or in the under-ice oceans of Jupiter's moon Europa, then we will have for the first time verifiable evidence of life being able to independently evolve somewhere else in the solar system... and universe.
And we can learn a lot from that. Life that evolves on a different planet will have evolved with a much different set of evolutionary pressures and conditions, so it would be of great scientific interest to be able to compare a true extraterrestrial form of life to our terrestrial form. An extraterrestrial life form may have evolved using a whole different chemistry, for instance not using carbon as the basic organic building block for its form of life, or not using DNA at all.
And there's another reason which might be of interest to some... all of us here on Earth, every living thing as a matter of fact, may be descended from life which originated on Mars, by extension making us Martians, as the above picture of myself and lovely Erin appears to indicate.
I'll get back to this in a little while.
And if we don't find any trace of life, or learn that there were no conditions in the past (like free flowing water on the surface of Mars) conducive to the evolution of life, then we learn that life is rare, and may be rare throughout the universe, and therefore precious, and not to be wasted on stupid ass wars, or large scale poverty, or dramatic climate change that we can mitigate if we put our efforts toward that goal.
The MSL mission has four goals really: To determine if life could have ever arisen on Mars, to characterize the climate of Mars, to characterize the geology of Mars, and to prepare for human exploration.
"The rover will analyze dozens of samples scooped from the soil and drilled from rocks. The record of the planet's climate and geology is essentially "written in the rocks and soil" -- in their formation, structure, and chemical composition. The rover's on board laboratory will study rocks, soils, and the local geologic setting in order to detect chemical building blocks of life (e.g., forms of carbon) on Mars and will assess what the Martian environment was like in the past."
Curiosity is going to spend a year doing those things... Martian year. A year on Mars equals 686 Earth days, or a little less than 2 Earth years. It will have an onboard power source, a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator that will use the heat generated by a little decaying plutonium-238 converted into electricity, providing constant power during all the seasons and throughout the day and night, unlike the Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which rely on solar power.
As you can tell from the pictures above Curiosity is pretty big (for a rover). It's about the size of your average mini Cooper automobile at approximately 10 feet in length, 9 feet wide. It weighs 1,984 pounds, which includes 176 pounds of scientific instruments.
Because Curiosity is so freaking big it will not be able to use the airbag assisted landing system that Spirit and Opportunity used to set down on the surface. It will use a technique that has never been tried before, what is called the sky crane touchdown system that was illustrated in the animated short film above. It's all very exciting, and because we've never done it before, it's also very dangerous.
Curiosity's wheels are designed to leave a tread pattern which will leave an impression on the Martian surface spelling "JPL" for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Morse code. I don't know why. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology is managing the project for NASA, so I guess the tread pattern thing is a form of advertising for... well I don't know exactly who the advertising is aimed at really. It confuses me and makes my head ache.
Oh yes... my name is going to Mars again. It's already up there you know. In 1997, the Pathfinder mission, which included the Sojourner rover, and what has been renamed the Carl Sagan Memorial Station, which was the lander, included a microdot with the names of the then current membership of the Planetary Society, the non-government, civilian space advocacy group founded by Dr Sagan, planetary scientist Bruce Murray, and astronautics engineer Louis Friedman in 1980. I of course was a member and thus my name has been sitting on the Martian surface, on Mars' Ares Vallis, in a region called Chryse Planitia in the Oxia Palus quadrangle to be exact, for over 14 years.
And it's going there again! The opportunity to have your name sent along with the Curiosity rover was open to the public for years if you happened to know about it. I did happen to know about it and submitted my name and received a certificate very similar to the one above that states my name is being sent to Mars.
Now I'll have my name in two different locations on the planet Mars, all ready for someone to find at some future date (if they don't wait to long. Mars does have an atmosphere, although a thin one, so the possibility... the certainty that erosion will occur and sandblast all our names to hell exists) if they happen to have a microdot reader.
Speaking about that Martian atmosphere, it consists mostly of carbon dioxide. Humans can't breath carbon dioxide. Plants can, but we can't, which would make living there very difficult. It's cold there as well. Really cold. And there's little protection from the sun's ultra violet light radiation because there's no ozone in the atmosphere, so if man ever does go there, which we plan on doing eventually, we're going to have to bring spacesuits and heaters and stuff like that. Air too.
Be that as it may, we're finding things in the atmosphere of Mars that really shouldn't be there at all, like methane.
In January of 2009 a team of researchers reported that the bursts of methane originated from three specific regions in the planet’s northern hemisphere, where it was midsummer. The gas came out at a rate of 0.6 kilograms a second, the scientists said, and the plume contained 19,000 metric tons of methane. That's a lot of methane.
Now methane falls apart easily when acted upon by ultra violet radiation, which would occur rapidly in the Martian atmosphere. That means the methane that was detected had to have originated recently.
There is only a few ways methane could enter the atmosphere of Mars. One of them is inorganic, consisting of geothermal chemical reactions involving water and heat in volcanoes or underground hot springs. Despite Mars having the largest volcano in the solar system, Olmpus Mons (14 miles high, twice the size of Mt. Everest), evidence for recent volcanism on Mars is scarce.
The other possibility is biological. Living things excrete methane. Cows do it. Horses do it. I did it once. Girls do it though they won't admit it.
On Earth, a class of bacteria known as methanogens breathes out methane as a waste product. So there could be living organisms near the surface of the planet, probably near areas where water is located beneath the surface as well.
Or there may not. We don't know. The one time we did send an experiment to Mars to look for microbial life forms, the Viking landers of 1976, the results were ambiguous, meaning we really couldn't tell if the chemical reactions observed were due to living organisms, or non biological systems.
And as I've already said, another experiment to look for biological activity was not included on the MSL mission. I don't know why. It hasn't been included on the next two planned Mars landers either, although they may be canceled due to budget considerations, which would be a crying shame.
So what are we to conclude from this. Obviously the federal government knows there is life on Mars and doesn't want anyone else to know about it.
So dear readers, please get out your pens and paper, or your Email machines, and contact your Congress people and demand they put a halt to the great Martian cover up!
Because they could be trying to hide the fact that we are all (Republicans expecially) descendents of Martian microbes.
The sun and the planets formed at the same time about 4.6 billion years ago (sorry all of you Christian people who believe the Earth is only 10,000 years old. You are almost certainly wrong. Man did not live with the dinosaurs... despite the Flintstones). But because Mars is smaller than Earth, it cooled faster, and it probably would have been hospitable for life earlier. That raises the interesting possibility that pieces of Mars containing microbes were blasted into space by asteroid impacts and later landed on Earth, seeding life here.
Meteorite ALH84001, was discovered in the Allan Hills region of Antarctica in 1984. It is believed to be one of twelve meteorites to have landed on Earth which originated from Mars. ALH84001 became dislodged from the surface of Mars about 16 million years ago, floated in space until it struck the Earth 13,000 years ago. Scientists have discovered what they think are micro fossils inside the rock. Micro fossils indicate past life, which in this case would have come from Mars. This discovery prompted the news conference with then President Clinton that can be seen in the motion picture "Contact," based on the novel written by Carl Sagan.
Small world.
This is called the Panspermia hypothesis, which stipulates life did not evolve from chemical reactions in the oceans of ancient Earth, but was brought to this planet from space seeds, via meteoroids, asteroids and planetoids.
Now I and a lot of others believe that the so-called fossils found in ALH84001 are simply too small to be derived from living organisms. However, if the Panspermia theory is eventually found to be true, which the government may be trying to keep from us for purely political reasons (whose going to run on the Martian ticket?!), then we all (or at least some of us) may be in fact be Martians.
I certainly think Newt Gangrich is. Michelle Bachmann for sure. Mitt probably. Who on Earth would name their child Mitt for God's sake. Everybody from Texas certainly.
So be careful who you vote for dear readers. They may not only be un-American. They may be un-Earthian.

Here's the NASA Mars Science Laboratory site incase you're interested:

Addendum: I'm happy to report that the Mars Science Laboratory successfully lifted off from Cape Canaveral right on time at 10:02AM EST. Have a good trip MSL and Curiosity!


  1. Why waste billions of dollars on something so shifty, when we could use that same money to make the world a better place- for example- stop wars, fight poverty and discrimination. I dont care whether I am a 'martian' or not!

  2. Good comment and question! Indeed, why? Well I'll tell you why Anonymous, because the Mars Science Laboratory at 2.5 billion, or the Large Hadron Collider for that matter, at 9 to 12 billion, and all basic scientific research adds to our general knowledge of how the world, how nature works, and the better our understanding of how nature works the better we are able to apply that knowledge in practical applications. The United States is spending less and less on basic research and development because it costs money that doesn't immediately add to a company's bottom line, but there is no limit to what it would add later. We need to spend more, not less on R & D. That's how electricity was turned into a practical energy source. The automobile. The tranister, which made computers work. You want to stop wars, then get the military industrial complex's money out of Congress, and all other money. We waste untold billions on a defense budget that thinks it's still fighting the Cold War. We waste billions on subsidies for oil companies which are the most profitable entities in the history of the planet. Compared to the billions and billions of dollars wasted by the government as a matter of course, the price tag for the Mars Science Laboratory, and all other scientific endeavors, seems paltry. That's my short answer.
    Thanks for the comment. RJ