The Ultimate Paternity Test: Are We Martian?

"Dad?" A scene from War of the Worlds.

This rather outlandish, sci-fi notion comes straight from the fertile minds of researchers from MIT, the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University who are proposing a biology experiment that could be sent on a future Mars surface mission. If their hypothesis is proven, we wouldn’t only have an answer for the age old question: Are we alone? but we’d also have an answer for the not-so-age-old question: Did life from Mars spawn life on Earth?

The idea goes like this: countless tons of material from Mars has landed on Earth. We know this to be true; meteorites have been discovered on Earth that originate from the Red Planet. These rocks were blasted from the Martian surface after eons of asteroid impacts, and the rocks then drifted to Earth.

If there was once life on Mars — a concept that isn’t that far-fetched, considering Mars used to boast liquid water in abundance on its surface — then perhaps some tiny organisms (not dislike the hardy cyanobacteria that is thought to have been one of the earliest forms of life to evolve on our planet) hitched a ride on these rocks. If some of these organisms survived the harsh conditions during transit from Mars to Earth and made it though the searing heat as the meteorite fell through our atmosphere, then perhaps (perhaps!) that is what sparked life on Earth.

You may have heard a few variations of this mechanism, it is of course the “panspermia” hypothesis. Panspermia assumes that life isn’t exclusive to just one rocky body like Earth, perhaps life has the ability to hop from one planet to the next, helped on its way by asteroid impacts. Not only that, but perhaps (perhaps!) tiny microorganisms could drift, encased in interstellar dust, akin to pollen drifting in the wind, seeding distant star systems.

Naturally, when considering the distance between the planets (let alone the light-years between the stars!), one might be a little skeptical of panspermia. But it certainly would help us understand how life first appeared on Earth. After all, it’s not as if the solar system has a natural quarantine system in place — if Mars had (or has) bacteria on its surface, perhaps they have been spread to Earth, like an interplanetary flu bug. Also, as experiments are showing us, microorganisms have an uncanny ability to survive in space for extended periods of time.

So, according to my esteemed Discovery News colleague Ray Villard, the MIT team led by Christopher Carr and Maria Zuber and Gary Ruvkun, a molecular biologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University, are proposing to build an instrument to send to Mars. But this instrument won’t be looking for signs of life, it will be testing the hypothetical Martian DNA and RNA. Should this interplanetary paternity test prove positive, proving a relationship between Earth Brand™ Life and Mars Brand™ Life, then this could be proof of some extraterrestrial cross-pollination.

Although this is complete conjecture at this time, as there is no proof that life has ever existed on Mars (despite what research in dodgy research journals tell us), it is certainly an interesting idea that would not only test the hypothesis of panspermia, but also give us a clue about the potential human colonization of Mars.

To quote Ray:

This could give us pause about sending humans to a germ-laden alien world. It would be an ironic twist on the H.G. Wells classic 1898 novel “The War of the Worlds,” where invading Martians succumb to the common cold from Earth microbes.

See, Wells’ Martian warriors should have done genome testing first.

Ingredients for Life on Gliese 581g?

Credit: Lynette Cook

Just in case you haven’t heard, astronomers have released news about an “Earth-like” exoplanet orbiting within the “Goldilocks zone” of a star some 20 light-years away. This is awesome, but does it mean Gliese 581g is habitable? Does it mean life is already slithering across its surface?

Judging by an exuberant claim by Steven Vogt, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at University of California Santa Cruz, one would think we now know there’s life on this strangely familiar world.

“Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say that the chances for life on this planet are 100 percent. I have almost no doubt about it,” Vogt told Discovery News when the announcement broke on Wednesday.

100%?

Why did he say that his personal view was that the chances for life on Gliese 581g are 100%? At first glance, it is easy to see where he’s coming from.

Goldilocks Zone

Firstly, the exoplanet orbits close to a small red dwarf star (called Gliese 581), with a fast-paced orbit of 37 days. This is important as the energy output of a red dwarf is tiny when compared to our Sun (which is a yellow dwarf star, in case you were wondering) — to receive an equivalent amount of heating as the Earth, Gliese 581g needs to be much closer to its star.

Also, it isn’t orbiting too close. It is within the habitable zone (or the “Goldilocks zone,” i.e., a zone that’s not too hot or too cold) of the system. Therefore there’s a high probability that if water is present on its surface, it’s likely to be in liquid form. The presence of liquid water would be exciting as Earth Brand™ life likes liquid water.

Secondly, Gliese 581g is small for an exoplanet discovered thus far. Weighing in at a minimum mass of 3x that of the Earth, it could certainly have some Earth-like qualities. This has another implication; the world has enough gravitational oomph to hold onto an atmosphere — another ingredient that life seems to like (assuming it’s not of the bone-crushing, lead-boiling, Venus-type atmosphere).

It’s Complicated

But there’s a few complications. To be within the habitable zone of its parent star, Gliese 581g will be “tidally locked.” This means that one side of the exoplanet will always be facing the star. On the far side (or, indeed, the “dark side”) it will be cold whilst the near side will always be hot. Having one perpetual day doesn’t sound very Earth-like to me. But there is an upside to this strange orbit.

“This planet doesn’t have days and nights. Wherever you are on this planet, the sun is in the same position all the time. You have very stable zones where the ecosystem stays the same temperature… basically forever,” Vogt said. “If life can evolve, it’s going to have billions and billions of years to adapt to the surface.”

So a tidally-locked planet could have a stable atmosphere and perhaps life could evolve as a result. What could be considered to be a negative has just become a positive.

With all this good news, why wouldn’t life be thriving on this world?

Unknowns and Assumptions

There’s still a lot of unknowns and assumptions being made. For a start, the presence of Gliese 581g was detected by measuring the “wobble” of the star as the exoplanet orbits (its gravity tugs on the star as it circles). Therefore its mass and orbital radius can be derived. But we have no information about its atmosphere; the world doesn’t pass in front (or “transit”) the star from our perspective, so we can’t get a peek into its atmosphere.

Therefore we have zero clue as to whether it even has an atmosphere. It might not have an atmosphere, but then again it could have a very thick atmosphere — two extremes that would would put a stop to any Earth Brand™ life evolving. Also, we have zero clue if there’s any water there, it’s just guesswork that suggests there might be. There’s also the huge unknown as to whether life is ubiquitous in the cosmos or not.

Bread in the Oven

It’s a bit like baking a loaf of bread when you have all the necessary ingredients to make bread, but you have no clue about what quantities to use. Gliese 581g appears to have most of the ingredients for life (and with a few assumptions, it has all the ingredients for life), but we only have a general idea as to what quantities these ingredients come in.

If you threw flour, water and yeast straight into the breadmaker in random quantities, would you get a loaf of bread? What if you forgot to add the yeast?

Gliese 581g is that breadmaker. Unfortunately we have no clue if it can make bread.

For more on this incredible discovery, read Irene Klotz’s Discovery News article: “Earth-Like Planet Can Sustain Life

Military “Black Ops” on Mars. Really?

The Aram Chaos region of Mars, as seen by the HiRISE camera on board NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (NASA)

There’s a military operation on Mars!

How do we know this? Psychics — or “military grade remote viewers” as they like to be called — “saw” it, and their vision corroborated a Mars satellite photo that shows “man-made domes,” “pipelines” and a “huge nozzle shooting liquid spray.”

That’s according to the guy that runs the Farsight Institute anyway.

Before we get bogged down with the details, let’s get one thing straight: remote viewing is not a scientific tool and has never been proven to work. It is pseudoscience. Sure, the U.S. military became interested in investigating remote viewing as a spying weapon (unsurprisingly, the superpowers were pretty keen on investigating every avenue to spy on the enemy during the Cold War), but funding was withdrawn in the 90’s as it was proven remote sensing was ineffective and any positive results could not be replicated.

Most recently, the U.K.’s Ministry of Defence carried out a suite of experiments on a group of remote viewers to see how their brains reacted during the viewing phase. There appeared to be no measurable change in brain activity, and besides, none of the psychics tested could access the desired targets anyway, rendering the whole thing pointless.

But these facts don’t seem to dissuade Dr. Courtney Brown from trying to justify a scientific basis for his “Evidence for Artificiality on Mars” presentation. Not surprisingly, one of the Examiner’s “Exopolitics” writers is very exited about this non-research, saying, “An apparent active industrial site on the surface of Mars with a “large nozzle shooting a liquid spray” onto an apparent industrial waste area has been successfully located and explored in a remote viewing study conducted by the Farsight Institute in March 2010 using nine highly trained remote viewers and methodologies developed by the U.S. military.”

Here’s the region of Mars we’re talking about, helpfully labeled to show the targets for the remote viewers. These targets are obviously highly suspicious, they look nothing like the rest of the Aram Chaos region of Mars (*squints*):

Take a look at the original Mars Global Surveyor images of the site. It might take a couple of minutes to find the area of interest, which isn’t surprising as it looks like the rest of Mars.

But no, there is something of vast interest in this particular photo. It’s an industrial complex! On Mars! Not inhabited by those pesky aliens we’ve seen hanging out on the Martian surface, but by humans!

Now the remote viewers have their targets, the Farsight Institute carried out some kind of experiment and Dr. Brown — a guy with a book to sell (where have we seen that before?) — discusses the astonishing results. In case you think I’ve eaten a funny-looking mushroom or been lobotomized by a trained hamster, this “evidence” for remote viewing is listed on the Farsight Institute’s webpages. I’m not making this up.

In the Mars orbiter photo (above), a spraying fountain of some “liquid” (target 1a) can be seen. In fact, this is the whole reason why Brown has taken an interest in this region. “We wouldn’t be interested in these domes if it wasn’t for the spray,” he said, “but the spray really caught our attention.” This spray is being ejected by a mountain-shaped dome (target 1b) via a horizontal “pipe.” There is a shadow under the spray indicating it is being ejected at some height. There is also another “highly reflective” dome below the other dome (target 1c). “It looks like it’s made out of some kind of resin material,” Brown remarks.

So, using their psychic powers, the military-grade remote viewers managed to access some fascinating details about the site — they even drew some vague scribbles of their visions.

These are my favorite conclusions from this fascinating experiment:

The artificial structures on Mars were originally built by ancient builders and the current occupants do not understand its technology. They need spare parts, but don’t have any. The mystery technology in operation generates power and there are intense flashing lights at the site. The occupants on site — of which there are more men than women — are despondent (because there are more men than women? Because no one knows they’re there? There’s no good coffee in the canteen? Just guessing). The occupants, assumed to be human, are in a lot of hardship and they aren’t allowed to return home.

Apart from sounding like a sweat house scene ripped straight from an 18th Century Jane Austin novel, the very idea the U.S. military has some kind of black operation on the Red Planet is hilarious. But to single out one tiny region of the planet by pure chance (because Brown thinks he sees a pipe gushing water over the landscape) and creating a fantasy world using zero logical thought is amazing to me.

The “gushing fluid” feature could be any one of a huge number of geological features. To me, it looks like a landslide; lighter material that has been dislodged, causing rubble to tumble down the slope. It could even be ice mixed in with regolith after an avalanche, ice crystals falling from the top of the mesa (a hill; not what Brown describes as anything man-made) scattering over the darker colored material further down the slope.

The shadow Brown points to is not caused by this “spraying liquid” feature, it’s simply darker-colored material in the Martian soil. There goes that theory. As for the other suggestions of man-made structures… well, that’s just Brown’s vivid imagination. I’m finding it hard to see any man-made domes. They’re just hills.

This crazy theory could be picked at for hours, but I’m still in amazement that people like Brown can discuss a subject like this with such conviction. There is overwhelming evidence that easily debunks the idea that there is an industrial complex on Aram Chaos. Unfortunately, for people peddling their pseudo-scientific ideas, common sense and logical thought seem to be concepts they have trouble grasping.

via Universe Today and SciGuy

Earth is no Longer ‘One of a Kind’

For this special little planet, today has been a very big day.

Although we’ve speculated that planets the size of Earth must exist elsewhere in the cosmos, it wasn’t until one of the co-investigators working with the Kepler Space Telescope said he had statistical evidence that worlds of the approximate size of Earth appear to dominate our Milky Way.

We now know Earth isn’t unique.

Alas, this historic news didn’t come without controversy. It was unofficially broken at a TED conference in Oxford earlier this month and only after a recording of a presentation given by Dimitar Sasselov was posted online did the news get out. What’s more, the announcement only became clear when Sasselov referred to a presentation slide depicting a bar chart with the different sizes of exoplanets discovered by Kepler:

A slide from Dimitar Sasselov's TED presentation.

This slide shows the number of exoplanets discovered up until this month, binned by size. We have Jupiter-like exoplanets, Saturn-like exoplanets and Neptune-like exoplanets, all compared with Earth’s radius.

The heart-stopping moment comes when looking at the bar that represents Earth-like exoplanets (i.e. worlds with a radius of below 2 Earth radii, or “<2 Re"). According to Sasselov, Kepler has detected a lot of Earth-like worlds, so many in fact that they dominate the picture. From what we have here, it would appear that around 140 exoplanets are considered to be like Earth.

“The statistical result is loud and clear,” said Sasselov. “And the statistical result is that planets like our own Earth are out there. Our Milky Way galaxy is rich in these kinds of planets.”

But why the controversy? Isn’t this good news?

It would appear that the Kepler co-investigator chose not to wait until the official press release from NASA. He publicized these groundbreaking results in the U.K. at an event where you had to buy tickets to attend. This isn’t usually the stage you’d expect this kind of discovery to be announced — a move that will undoubtedly upset many.

“What is really annoying is that the Kepler folks were complaining about releasing information since they wanted more time to analyze it before making any announcements,” Keith Cowing, of NASAWatch.com, wrote in a SpaceRef article today. “And then the project’s Co-I goes off and spills the beans before an exclusive audience – offshore. We only find out about it when the video gets quietly posted weeks later.”

This sentiment is understandable. Only last month there was some frustration vented at the Kepler team for holding back data on 400 exoplanet candidates. While this might be standard practice — the discovering team should be allowed some time to publish work on any discoveries they have uncovered — telling the world’s scientists they will have to wait until February 2011 before they can get their hands on this invaluable data was a bridge too far.

In light of this, for a Kepler scientist to then jump the gun and disclose a groundbreaking discovery at an international conference without the backing of an official NASA release seems a little hypocritical.

But there is another argument to put out there: Why should anyone sit on such a profound discovery? Perhaps NASA and the Kepler team should have issued an earlier press release announcing to the world that 140 candidate Earth-like worlds have been detected and that further work will need to be done to confirm.

Ultimately, this controversy is just background noise when compared to what we have learned today. Official confirmation or not, Dimitar Sasselov’s message is clear. Although these detections need to be confirmed (hence why these worlds are referred to as “candidates”), it would appear there is an overwhelming preponderance of exoplanets measuring 2 Earth radii or less.

For me, that fact alone is astonishing — the first scientific evidence that worlds of Earth dimensions are not rare.

Earth is no longer unique.

For more, read my Discovery News article, “Kepler Scientist: ‘Galaxy is Rich in Earth-Like Planets‘”

Jupiter Got Smacked, Again

Quite frankly, I’m stunned.

An Australian amateur astronomer has just observed his second ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ event: an impact in the atmosphere of Jupiter. Phil Plait was very quick to get the news out, describing it as a “major coincidence,” and he ain’t wrong!

Anthony Wesley’s first event was the famous July 2009 observation of what was thought to have been the immediate aftermath of a comet impact in the Jovian atmosphere. His second happened on Thursday at 20:31 UTC when he was observing Jupiter when something hit the atmosphere, generating a huge fireball.

It is not known whether this event was caused by a comet or asteroid, but in a bizarre case of serendipity, earlier on Thursday Hubble released more information on his original impact event. The July 2009 “bruise” in the gas giant’s atmosphere is now thought to have been caused by an asteroid, and not a comet.

The Hubble press release included details on how researchers deduced that it was actually more likely that a 500 meter-wide asteroid hit Jupiter in 2009. One clue was that newly installed cameras on the space telescope detected little dust in the halo surrounding the impact site — a characteristic that was detected after the impact of the shards of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in July 1994. Also, the calculated trajectory of the 2009 event indicated the object didn’t have an orbit commonly associated with comets. If the 2009 event was an asteroid, that means Wesley saw something never seen before: the site of a recent asteroid impact on a celestial body.

And now, less than a year after being the first to see that impact aftermath, Wesley has done it again. Another amateur astronomer, Christopher Go, was quick to confirm Thursday’s fireball with a video of the 2 second flash in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere.

These impact events serve as a reminder about Jupiter’s fortuitous role in our Solar System. As the gas giant is so massive, its gravitational pull has a huge influence over the outer planets, dwarf planets, comets and asteroids. Acting like an interplanetary ‘vacuum cleaner’ Jupiter can block potentially disastrous chunks of stuff from taking a dive into the inner Solar System. It is thought that this distant planet has helped Earth become the thriving world it is today, preventing many asteroids and comets from ruining our evolution.

Thank you Jupiter!

Life on Mars? Only in The Sun.

In its haste to become the first newspaper to print the “NASA: Evidence of Life on Mars” headline, the UK’s Sun website caused a stir last week. Not only was this headline incorrect, it was a wee bit irresponsible.

For starters, no evidence for life has been found on the Red Planet. Second, NASA has not proclaimed such a discovery. In fact, The Sun riled the U.S. space agency so much, this headline prompted NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown to issue the following statement:

“This headline is extremely misleading. This makes it sound like we announced that we found life on Mars, and that is absolutely, positively false.”

So where did it all go so wrong?

This story stems from an astrobiology conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the search for alien life. At this conference, findings by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity were reviewed. One of these findings was the tantalizing discovery of sulfates by the rover in 2004. Where there’s sulfates, water once existed. Where there’s water, life might have existed.

In an exciting twist to this discovery, scientists studying sulfate deposits on Earth (known as gypsum) were asked by scientists in the Mars Program to investigate terrestrial gypsum deposits more closely. Up until now, it was thought that gypsum contained no fossils, but on closer inspection it turns out that ancient gypsum deposits from the Mediterranean Sea (dated to about 6 million years old — when the sea was actually dry) are stuffed full of microscopic fossils of algae and phytoplanktons.

So, on Mars we have sulfates. On Earth we have sulfates (gypsum) full of fossils of aquatic microscopic life. If we know the terrestrial deposits of gypsum contain fossils of basic life forms, perhaps sulfate deposits on Mars would be a good place to start looking for basic ancient extraterrestrial life.

Of course, for the tabloid newspaper, these Martian sulfate deposits became “pond scum” and therefore “evidence” for life on Mars.

In actuality, the text of The Sun article wasn’t that misleading and actually did a good job of reporting the science (apart from the “pond scum” bit). Unfortunately, the title of the article let the rest of the article down, ultimately undermining the journalists’ work.

But, coming from the same publication that printed the silly “Pictures show life on Mars” article from 2008, the “Evidence for life on Mars” headline is pretty tame.

Now, time for the same news with a more appropriate headline by Irene Klotz on Discovery News: “Earth Fossil Find May Lead to Martian Discoveries

Thanks to Astroengine.com reader Judy Mason for inspiring this post.

Mars Rover Spirit Becomes “Mars Base Spirit”

Sorry Spirit, you're not coming home (see the full xkcd comic strip).

Sorry Spirit, you're not coming home (see the full xkcd comic strip).

As far as space missions go, you couldn’t find a better epic tale than that of Mars Expedition Rover Spirit. Designed to last 3 months, roved for six years; lost the use of a wheel, turned it into a nifty trench-digging tool; nearly died, came back to life; had memory problems, shrugged them off… the list could go on for ever. However, it’s now official, this is one challenge the little wheeled warrior couldn’t beat; she’s stuck in the sand and there’s nowhere to go.

Mars Rover Spirit is now “Mars Base Spirit.”

Naturally when NASA broke the news that Spirit was going to remain stuck in a hole in Gusev crater for the rest of her days, we weren’t surprised, but everyone was sad. That little robot has captivated the world with all her escapades, and although she’s a machine, we’ve all personified Spirit. She’s the little rover that could.

And she‘s a girl, obviously.

But wait! Spirit is not dead quite yet. Spirit will hopefully become a stationary science probe if she makes it through winter (but that’s a big “if”). Once the Sun dips closer to the horizon during the winter months, less sunlight will hit the rover’s solar panels. Depending on how much energy Spirit has in reserves and how much dust coats the panels (making them less efficient at collecting the dwindling light), we could be looking at the end of the mission all together. Assuming she makes it through till spring, it’s conceivable that Spirit can be used as a weather outpost and, intriguingly, a tracking beacon to measure Mars’ wobble. The tiny wobble could lead scientists to understand the interior of the planet.

“We think we can actually determine whether the core of Mars is liquid or molten,” said Cornell University’s Steve Squyres, the lead scientist of the Mars rover program. “There’s compelling evidence that Mars once had a pretty powerful internally generated magnetic field and that probably required a core of iron that was liquid.”

If Spirit can make it through the winter and help NASA understand the interior of Mars, that would be the icing on the cake. Although Spirit may not be dominating the surface of Mars like her sister rover Opportunity (who’s notched up over 12 km so far and still going strong), perhaps she can dominate the interior of Mars by remaining stationary in the sand.