Water Could Kill Life On Mars

A view from the Viking 1 deck, showing trenches its robotic arm dug out to acquire samples for testing [NASA/JPL-Caltech/Roel van der Hoorn]

When rains came to one of the driest places on Earth, an unprecedented mass extinction ensued.

The assumption was that this rainfall would turn this remote region of the Atacama Desert in Chile into a wondrous, floral haven — dormant seeds hidden in the parched landscape would suddenly awake, triggered by the “life-giving” substance they hadn’t seen for centuries — but it instead decimated over three quarters of the native bacterial life, microbes that shun water in favor of the nitrogen-rich compounds the region has locked in its dry soil.

In other words, death fell from the skies.

“We were hoping for majestic blooms and deserts springing to life. Instead, we learned the contrary, as we found that rain in the hyperarid core of the Atacama Desert caused a massive extinction of most of the indigenous microbial species there,” said astrobiologist Alberto Fairen, who works at Cornell Cornell University and the Centro de Astrobiología, Madrid. Fairien is co-author of a new study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports.

“The hyperdry soils before the rains were inhabited by up to 16 different, ancient microbe species. After it rained, there were only two to four microbe species found in the lagoons,” he added in a statement. “The extinction event was massive.”

El Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) near San Pedro de Atacama looks very Mars-like [photo taken during #MeetESO in 2016, Ian O’Neill]

Climate models suggest that these rains shouldn’t hit the core regions of Atacama more than once every century, though there is little evidence of rainfall for at least 500 years. Because of the changing climate over the Pacific Ocean, however, modern weather patterns have shifted, causing the weird rain events of March 25 and Aug. 9, 2015. It also rained more recently, on June 7, 2017. Besides being yet another reminder about how climate change impacts some of the most delicate ecosystems on our planet, this new research could have some surprise implications for our search for life on Mars.

Over forty years ago, NASA carried out a profound experiment on the Martian surface: the Viking 1 and 2 landers had instruments on board that would explicitly search for life. After scooping Mars regolith samples into their chemical labs and adding a nutrient-rich water mix, one test detected a sudden release of carbon dioxide laced with carbon-14, a radioisotope that was added to the mix. This result alone pointed to signs that Martian microbes in the regolith could be metabolizing the mixture, belching out the CO2.

Alas, the result couldn’t be replicated and other tests threw negative results for biological activity. Scientists have suggested that this false positive was caused by inorganic reactions, especially as, in 2008, NASA’s Phoenix Mars lander discovered toxic and highly reactive perchlorates is likely common all over Mars. Since Viking, no other mission has attempted a direct search for life on Mars and the missions since have focused on seeking out water and past habitable environments rather than directly testing for Mars germs living on modern Mars.

With this in mind, the new Atacama microbe study could shed some light on the Viking tests. Though the out-gassing result was likely a false positive, even if all the samples collected by the two landers contained microscopic Martians, the addition of the liquid mix may well have sterilized the samples — the sudden addition of a large quantity of water is no friend to microbial life that has adapted to such an arid environment.

“Our results show for the first time that providing suddenly large amounts of water to microorganisms — exquisitely adapted to extract meager and elusive moisture from the most hyperdry environments — will kill them from osmotic shock,” said Fairen.

Another interesting twist to this research is that NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity discovered nitrate-rich deposits in the ancient lakebed in Gale Crater. These deposits might provide sustenance to Mars bacteria (and may be a byproduct of their metabolic activity), like their interplanetary alien cousins in Atacama.

As water-loving organisms, humans have traditionally assumed life elsewhere will bare similar traits to life as we know it. But as this study shows, some life on Earth can appear quite alien; the mass extinction event in the high deserts of Chile could teach us about how to (and how not to) seek out microbes on other planets.

Source: Cornell University

The Fear of God Could Reverse Global Warming. Oh Yes

The Flying Speghetti Monster. I wonder if this is what Lord May had in mind? (Church of the FSM)
The Flying Speghetti Monster. I wonder if this is what Lord May had in mind? (Church of the FSM)

This one comes direct from the UK’s Department for Wacky Ex-Chief Science Advisors, and I’m not too sure which I’m more shocked with; the fact that Lord May actually suggested that religion (i.e. fear of the All Mighty) could save the world from a climate meltdown or that the Telegraph reported May’s views so candidly.

Ex-government officials certainly are not afraid to share their views with the world, and that’s fine, but sometimes they sound a little crazy in doing so. Take last year’s discussion between Prof. Brian Cox and Sir David King.

King, Chief Science Advisor for the UK government from 2000-2007, came out with the astonishing statement that the Large Hadron Collider was “more navel searching than searching for potential future developments for the benefit of mankind.” He made this astounding point during a discussion on the BBC’s Newsnight, on the day the LHC was switched on. Buzz kill. Fortunately, Cox offloaded a round of common sense in the direction of Sir King, proving that it probably should have been a practising scientist, not a guy with a knighthood, advising the Prime Minister about UK science between the years of 2000 and 2007.

Unfortunately, a Lord might not be up to the task either, judging by this most recent statement by the UK Chief Science Advisor who reigned from 1995-2000.

Given that punishment is a useful mechanism, how much more effective it would be if you invested that power not in an individual you don’t like, but an all-seeing, all powerful deity that controls the world,” he said

It makes for rigid, doctrinaire societies, but it makes for co-operation.”

And how would this supernatural being help modern society? We’ll all be so scared to avoid getting struck down by “God” that the whole planet will band together, human cultures would stabilize and cooperate to find a quick solution to carbon emissions and climate change.

Yeah, ‘cuz that’s how religion works: scare the crap out of the commoners! Tell them that if they don’t recycle, or use public transportation, they’ll piss off God so much that he’ll fry them with a thunderbolt from heaven. That will solve all our climate woes!

The odd thing is that May is apparently an Atheist, so I’m even more confused as to where his faith in religion comes from. Sure, religion is integrated into society, and yes, it’s provided a structure to people’s lives for thousands of years. But this is not a solution for the international community to suddenly become best of friends. I’m not even sure how May thinks believing in a “supernatural punisher” will change a thing. Who’s going to evangelize this God? How do you drive the fear into the hearts of billions in an effort to save the planet? He does point out that fundamentalism isn’t good either, and that he’s not a big fan of the Pope.

This sounds more like a description of some conspiracy-driven New World Order than an answer to rising carbon emissions.

No, don’t confuse the world’s inability to coordinate an effective plan to slow (or reverse) the effects of greenhouse gases with a world without a “supernatural punisher.” Besides, shouldn’t Lord May be promoting good science rather than thinking religion might save us all? As, let’s face it, religion isn’t the best catalyst for world collaboration (no matter how moderate it is).

My belief is that science is our best bet at finding a solution. Unfortunately it’s international politics that often lets us down, not a world that doesn’t have the fear for a divine being.

Source: Telegraph.co.uk

A Subtle Reminder: Earth Hour, Tonight, 8:30pm

©Jason Zuckerman
©Jason Zuckerman

To raise awareness about global climate change, at 8:30pm local time wherever you are in the world (I realise as I post this, half of the world has already passed this time, sorry), switch your lights off for one hour. Communities the world over are doing this to save energy, but primarily to bring awareness to the damage we are causing to the environment by our insatiable desire to use unnecessary lighting and electrical hardware.

For more information about Earth Hour, check out Mang’s Bat Cave »

For more artwork by Jason Zuckerman, check out Jay Zuck’s Sketch of the Day »

I can think of many thrilling things you could be doing during this hour of darkness, if you have any suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comment box below… keep it clean… or not, it’s up to you.

Not Just a Satellite: NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory Fails (Update)

The fairing of the Taurus XL rocket upper stage failed to separate correctly, in this morning's OCO launch (Vandenberg Air Force Base/NASA)
The fairing of the Taurus XL rocket upper stage failed to separate correctly in this morning's OCO launch (Vandenberg Air Force Base/NASA)

In the early hours of this morning at 1:55am PST, a carbon dioxide monitoring mission was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) was being carried into a 700 km polar orbit by a Taurus XL rocket. Unfortunately, 12 minutes and 30 seconds into the flight, the rocket upper stage suffered an anomaly, and the fairing failed to separate. Although it appears the rocket attained the desired altitude The vehicle did not attain the desired altitude and the $270 million satellite was doomed, trapped inside the the nose cone. The upper stage fairing was protecting the OCO as it ascended through the atmosphere; once in space it should have separated, peeled off and dropped away. That didn’t happen.
Continue reading “Not Just a Satellite: NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory Fails (Update)”

Climate Change, More Human Than We Thought

The Aztecs caused it too! (Getty)
The Aztecs, affected atmospheric carbon levels? (Getty)

Global warming anyone? I ask as I don’t want to upset anybody. Forget it, I’m going to talk about it anyway.

Climate change is an important subject worthy of debate. But for a debate to develop into something constructive, all sides need to have some scientific merit. Clearly, if we listen to Leo DiCaprio, Al Gore and the world’s carbon-cutting politicians, we might be led to believe we are damaging the environment… hell, we might even be warming the whole planet through carbon emissions! So, strip the Hollywood glamour and political spin from the debate, does the global warming debate have any science linking human activity with increased global temperatures?

In a new study, focusing on Central and South America, scientists have uncovered possibly one of the earliest recorded cases of human-induced climate change, possibly amplifying (or even triggering) the Little Ice Age in Europe throughout the 16th century and beyond…
Continue reading “Climate Change, More Human Than We Thought”