Thursday, December 31, 2009

Not quite Proof of Life on Mars... just not ruling out the possibility. Hmming, hydrogen peroxide extremophilic microbes?

The soil on Mars may indeed be teeming with microbes, according to a new interpretation of data first collected more than 30 years ago.

The search for life on Mars appeared to hit a dead end in 1976 when Viking landers touched down on the red planet and failed to detect biological activity.

There was another flurry of excitement a decade later, when Nasa thought it had found evidence of life in a Mars meteorite but doubts have since been cast on that finding.

Today, Joop Houtkooper from Justus-Liebig-University in Giessen, Germany, will claim the Viking spacecraft may in fact have encountered signs of a weird life form based on hydrogen peroxide on the subfreezing, arid Martian surface.

His analysis of one of the experiments carried out by the Viking spacecraft with a geophysicist, Dirk Schulze-Makuch of Washington State University, Pullman, suggests that 0.1 percent of the Martian soil could be of biological origin, he will tell the European Planetary Science Congress in Potsdam, Germany.

that is roughly comparable to biomass levels found in some Antarctic permafrost, home to a range of hardy bacteria and lichen. “It is interesting because one part per thousand is not a small amount,” Houtkooper said yesterday.

“We will have to find confirmatory evidence and see what kind of microbes these are and whether they are related to terrestrial microbes. It is a possibility that life has been transported from Earth to Mars or vice versa a long time ago.”

The discovery of microbes on Earth that can exist in environments previously thought too hostile has fuelled debate over extraterrestrial life.

Houtkooper believes Mars could be home to just such “extremophiles” – in this case, microbes whose cells are filled with a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and water. Such a mixture would provide clear benefits to organisms in the cold, dry Martian environment.

Its freezing point is as low as -56.5 C (depending on the concentration of peroxide); below that temperature it becomes firm but does not form cell-destroying crystals, as water ice does; and hydrogen peroxide is hygroscopic, which means it attracts water vapour from the atmosphere – a valuable trait on a planet where liquid water is rare.

Houtkooper believes their presence would account for unexplained rises in oxygen and carbon dioxide when NASA’s Viking landers incubated Martian soil.

He bases his calculation of the biomass of Martian soil on the assumption that these gases were produced during the breakdown of organic material.

Hydrogen peroxide is also a powerful oxidant. When released from dying cells, it would sharply lower the amount of organic material in their surroundings.

this would help explain why Viking’s gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer detected no organic compounds on the surface of Mars.

This result has also been questioned recently by Rafael Navarro-Gonzalez from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in Mexico City University of Mexico, who reported that similar instruments and methodology are unable to detect organic compounds in places on Earth, such as Antarctic dry valleys, where we know soil microorganisms exist.

The twin spacecraft, Viking 1 and Viking II, landed on the Red Planet in 1976. They were equipped with detectors designed to test the Martian soil for evidence of life.

The main instrument, called the TV-GC-MS assay, rapidly heated and vaporised soil for analysis by a spectrometer.

Dr Navarro-Gonzales concluded: “The fact that no organic molecules were released .. during the analysis of the Mars soils does not demonstrate that there were no organic materials on the surface of Mars..”

“We suggest that the design of future organic instruments for Mars should include other methods to be able to detect extinct and or extant life.”

Friday, December 25, 2009

NASA scientists have produced the most compelling evidence yet that bacterial life exists on Mars.

It showed that microscopic worm-like structures found in a Martian meteorite that hit the Earth 13,000 years ago are almost certainly fossilized bacteria. The so-called bio-morphs are embedded beneath the surface layers of the rock, suggesting that they were already present when the meteorite arrived, rather than being the result of subsequent contamination by Earthly bacteria.

"This is very strong evidence of life on Mars," said David Mackay, a senior scientist at the NASA Johnson Space Center, who was part of the team of scientists that originally investigated the meteorite when it was discovered in 1984.

In a 1996 study of the sample, Dr Mackay and others argued that the microfossils were evidence of life, but sceptics dismissed the claims, saying that similar-shaped structures might not be biological. The new analyses, the product of high resolution electron microscopy, make a strong case for the Allan Hills 84001 Meteorite having carried Martian life to Earth. The microscopes were focused on tiny magnetite crystals present in the surface layers of the meteorite, which have the form of simple bacteria. Some argued that these could be the result of a carbonate breaking down in the heat of the impact.

The new analyses show that this is very unlikely to have resulted in the kinds of structures seen in the rock. Close examination suggested that about 25 percent of the crystal structures were chemically consistent with being formed from bacteria.

"We feel vindicated. We’ve shown the alternate explanation is absolutely incorrect, leading us back to our original position that these structures are formed by bacteria on Mars," Dr Mackay said.

Dennis Bazylinski, an astrobiologist from the University of Nevada who peer-reviewed the findings, said: "Until now I was on the fence but this paper has really thrown out the non-biological explanation." However, he added that the study was not a "smoking gun" for life on Mars. "One meteorite is never going to answer such a complex question," he said.


Allan Hills 84001 (commonly abbreviated ALH 84001[1]) is a meteorite that was found in Allan Hills, Antarctica on December 27, 1984 by a team of US meteorite hunters from the ANSMET project. Like other members of the group of SNCs (shergottite, nakhlite, chassignite), ALH 84001 is thought to be from Mars. On discovery, its mass was 1.93 kg. It made its way into headlines worldwide in 1996 when scientists announced that it might contain evidence for microscopic fossils of Martian bacteria.

This rock is theorized to be one of the oldest pieces of the solar system, proposed to have crystallized from molten rock 4.5 billion years ago. Based on hypotheses surrounding attempts to identify where extraterrestrial rocks come from, it is supposed to have originated on Mars and is related to other Martian meteorites.

In September 2005, Vicky Hamilton of the University of Hawaii at Manoa presented an analysis of the origin of ALH 84001 using data from the Mars Global Surveyor and Mars Odyssey spacecraft orbiting Mars. According to the analysis, Eos Chasma in the Valles Marineris canyon appears to be the source of the meteorite.[2] The analysis was not conclusive, in part because it was limited to parts of Mars not obscured by dust.

The theory holds that ALH 84001 was shocked and broken by one or more meteorite impacts on the surface of Mars some 3.9 to 4.0 billion years ago, but remained on the planet. It was later blasted off from the surface in a separate impact about 15 million years ago and impacted Earth roughly 13,000 years ago. These dates were established by a variety of radiometric dating techniques, including samarium-neodymium (Sm-Nd), rubidium-strontium (Rb-Sr), potassium-argon (K-Ar), and carbon-14.[3][4]

It is hypothesized that ALH 84001 originated from a time period during which water may have existed on Mars.[5] Other meteorites that have potential biological markings have generated less interest because they do not originate from a "wet" Mars. ALH 84001 is the only meteorite collected from such a time period.[5]

The announcement of possible extraterrestrial life caused considerable controversy at the time and opened up interest in Martian exploration. When the discovery was announced, many immediately conjectured that the fossils were the first true evidence of extraterrestrial life—making headlines around the world, and even prompting U.S. President Bill Clinton to make a formal televised announcement to mark the event.[8]
Why should humans go to Mars?

by Frank Stratford

Why should humans go to Mars? Many reasons for and against have been cited over the years, and many still struggle to see the relevance of this priority. It seems so far out, so detached from life on Earth, and in many ways it is. Mars is physically hundreds of millions of kilometers away. It is colder than the coldest environment on Earth and it has an atmosphere—or lack thereof—that would kill you within thirty seconds or do in a most unpleasant fashion. Compared to terrestrial destinations it loses hands down. However, we need to look at Mars in a different context.

But in the end, why are we even considering such a journey? In a word: life.

We don’t yet fully understand all the effects of microgravity but we do know that untreated or lacking countermeasures it can have serious health effects. We don’t know how much gravity is needed to avoid those problems: it’s possible the Moon’s gravity, one-sixth that of Earth, may be sufficient, but certainly Martian gravity, at one-third of Earth’s, should be no worse and may be much better. Mars also has readily available resources, including the most important: water, in relatively abundant amounts, compared to the Moon. Mars also has a roughly 24-hour day night cycle which is crucial for plant development.

But in the end, why are we even considering such a journey? In a word: life. We want to go there to see if we can find evidence of life, a second genesis, and if we don’t find it, we want to establish new life on Mars—our own. Some say that the problems of Earth should be dealt with first, that we are too immature as a species and should wait a while until we “grow up”, but here is the thing: for the first time in history a species on Earth has the knowledge and technology to ensure its own survival by seeding life on new worlds. To ignore this opportunity for some philosophical nirvana to come first could be considered as irresponsible as our environmental abuses also. If there is a planetary crisis, such as the asteroid impact 65 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs, and we do nothing, then we will have lost it all.

This is the broad-brush view of why we need to go to Mars, but on a more personal level, what drives people to want to go to such places, so far away, so hostile to life? For many enthusiasts it is an escape, a chance for a new start and the challenge of a lifetime. The reasons for going will be different depending on whom you talk to. They are the same reasons people on Earth moved to hostile and far away environments here.

We need to “sharpen up”, so let’s do something worthy of the effort, and something with the payoff equal to the effort put in.

The difference is Mars is a whole other planet, not just a distant land. It can be seen as a challenge—an extreme challenge—and it is, so why go? It will test our knowledge, our resourcefulness, and the limits of our abilities in every way. It will be risky, and yes, people will die. But in today’s risk-averse world, the value of a challenge has been grossly underestimated. As people become more and more “stay at home” and turn to ever more push-button solutions, we are losing our survival instinct. Existing and living to simply relax at home where it is safe is not good for any of us in the end.

Take the obesity epidemic an example: people are piling on the pounds, sitting around in front of the TV, and literally shortening their life spans while they do this. Exercise is the key to health and growth for bodies and minds, and this also applies to our society. Expansion to new frontiers should be seen as extremely valuable to us now. In a world that is struggling with political solutions to big problems like the environment, hunger, poverty, and disease, we need a challenge like Mars now more than ever. We need to “sharpen up”, so let’s do something worthy of the effort, and something with the payoff equal to the effort put in. Mars, however we get there—be it a direct path or via the Moon, and with government programs or through private commercial space development—should be in our sights, for it has the potential to change our world in ways that we dearly need now.


Frank Stratford is the founder and executive director of MarsDrive. His writing is focused on human space exploration and Mars settlement issues, with a special focus on researching alternative Mars transport solutions. He lives in Melbourne, Australia.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Obama Sets NEW Course for Space Exploration Promotes Private Firms -

New Course for Space Exploration Promotes Private Firms - "The Obama administration appears set to chart a new course for U.S. space exploration by promoting the use of private companies to ferry astronauts into orbit, according to people familiar with the matter.

A Soyuz spacecraft is set to launch Monday in Kazakhstan, with a Russian flight commander and U.S. and Japanese flight engineers.The controversial plan would mark a trailblazing departure for the nation's space program by allowing a group of closely held start-up companies, for the first time, to compete for a central role in an arena previously dominated by much larger, publicly traded contractors with long track records working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Journal Community Discuss: Is the U.S. space program on the right track?
The initiative is part of a broader realignment of goals for an agency suffering from low morale and chronic budget shortfalls that also has been whipsawed by changing priorities in successive administrations."

New Course for Space Exploration Promotes Private Firms .ArticleComments (16)more in Politics ».
FriendlyShare: facebook ↓ More.
.StumbleUponDiggTwitterYahoo! BuzzFarkRedditLinkedIndel.icio.usMySpaceSave This ↓ More.
. Text .
The Obama administration appears set to chart a new course for U.S. space exploration by promoting the use of private companies to ferry astronauts into orbit, according to people familiar with the matter.

View Full Image
Agence France-Presse/Getty Images .
A Soyuz spacecraft is set to launch Monday in Kazakhstan, with a Russian flight commander and U.S. and Japanese flight engineers.The controversial plan would mark a trailblazing departure for the nation's space program by allowing a group of closely held start-up companies, for the first time, to compete for a central role in an arena previously dominated by much larger, publicly traded contractors with long track records working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Journal Community Discuss: Is the U.S. space program on the right track? .
The initiative is part of a broader realignment of goals for an agency suffering from low morale and chronic budget shortfalls that also has been whipsawed by changing priorities in successive administrations.

But even as it moves to outsource major components of the space program to private industry, these people said, the White House is planning to hedge its bets in various other ways. One likely option is to ramp up funding for certain in-house rocket programs that over the next few years could serve as a technical safety net, and eventually provide the families of more-powerful boosters required for longer-term exploration of the solar system.

The White House also intends to jettison policies that have been in place for more than a decade, by pushing for international cooperation and funding to develop spacecraft able to land and explore the surface of the moon, and ultimately perhaps Mars or one of its moons.

The administration's emerging endorsement for the spending blueprint comes at a crucial time, because senior White House aides are now laying out a plan for space exploration in the next fiscal year that is expected to meet stiff resistance in Congress. By splitting funding between NASA's traditional way of doing business and innovative private-sector initiatives, the administration is trying to forge a compromise that would bridge broader disagreements inside NASA and among segments of the aerospace industry.

The disputes revolve around the likely safety and reliability of relying on private space systems that have yet to be tested or, in some cases, even designed. Among the companies set to gain from the new policy are closely held Space Exploration Technologies Corp., founded by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk. SpaceX, as it is known, already has a NASA contract for as much as $1.6 billion to transport cargo to the International Space Station. By the spring of 2010, the company is slated to conduct the first test flight of its larger Falcon 9 rocket intended to carry astronauts to the station.

If the White House launches a new era of commercial crew transportation, "the significance of that decision would be on par with government-supported development of railroads" that crossed the continent during the previous century, Mr. Musk said in an interview on Sunday.

But the emphasis on commercial-style services also presents opportunities for aerospace heavyweights such as Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., both of which are anticipated to vie for contracts, according to industry and government officials.

Separately, Boeing in the next few weeks is expected to emerge as one of the winners in a small-scale NASA competition for research grants to work on advanced crew transportation concepts.

NASA's revised trajectory was discussed in broad terms during an Oval Office meeting last week between President Barack Obama and agency chief Charles Bolden.

Some details were reported on the Web site of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

While no firm decisions have been made and budget numbers remain in flux, there appears to be broad agreement inside the administration over using private rockets and capsules to access the orbiting space station. "There is clearly a recognition that if you want to do that, it should be done seriously and with enough funding" to succeed, according to one senior administration official involved in the deliberations.

The changes come four months after a presidentially appointed study group, chaired by former Lockheed Martin Chairman Norman Augustine, sharply criticized NASA's moon-oriented exploration program, dubbed Constellation, as short-sighted and underfunded. Instead, the committee advocated switching to commercially run rocket programs as a way to let NASA devote scare resources to more-ambitious exploration goals.

NASA officials have declined to discuss the deliberations, except for the renewed focus on international cooperation. In a speech earlier this month, Mr. Bolden indicated he has explicit instructions from the president to engage the Chinese, European governments and other countries.

"There are not a lot of things I can tell you with certainty" about the agency's direction, the NASA chief said. "But I can tell you, [Mr. Obama] said, do that."

On Friday, a White House press official said Mr. Obama hasn't made any final determination, but the spokesman reiterated the president's "commitment to human space exploration, and the goal of ensuring that the nation is on a sustainable path to achieving our aspirations in space."

The idea of outsourcing a big part of NASA's work has been circulating around Washington and in industry circles since the summer, but only recently has it garnered unequivocal support from the highest levels of the Obama Administration. It's likely to cost the agency as much as $3.5 billion extra to pursue the initiative, possibly including funding to help develop crew-escape systems for some of the rockets considered likely to vie for firm transportation business.

At this point, according to people familiar with the details, it's not clear whether the additional money will come from existing NASA programs or new Capitol Hill appropriations. NASA's total budget, including environmental, unmanned and other programs, is about $18.7 billion annually, though there is some talk that it may go up by $1 billion or more in the fiscal year starting October 2010.

So far, most of the relevant committees in Congress have been highly skeptical of commercial crew transportation. Members of the House Science subcommittee with oversight for NASA programs have been particularly outspoken in opposition.

Worried about crew safety ad losing thousands of contractor jobs across several states if large portions of the current human exploration program are shelved, Congress earlier this month adopted language explicitly barring NASA from abandoning or substantially revising Constellation without prior approval from lawmakers. Florida, Alabama, Texas and Utah are some of the states that would be hardest hit by major changes.

Proponents of new commercial-style programs, on the other hand, contend that such a switch would create thousands of new jobs at fledgling companies hoping to ride the latest trend. Jeff Greason, a member of the Augustine committee and president of XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, California, one of those startups, signaled on Friday that a compromise would be acceptable to his faction. In the few years it's bound to take commercial space projects to prove their value, he said in an interview Friday, it would be smart "for NASA taka advantage of the long years of experience" shared among established contractors by allowing them to compete for some of the anticipated work.

One group certain to compete is the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed that now supplies nearly all of the Air Force's rockets.

One of the biggest outstanding questions is what happens to the current plans to develop and build the Ares I rocket, intended to start its NASA work by blasting astronauts into orbit. The Augustine study group basically recommended killing Ares I, partly due to its large price tag and longer than anticipated development. Congressional supporters have argued equally strongly that it should be continued. Indeed, Ares supporters are campaigning for accelerated development of the booster, plus as many as three extra test flights over the next few years.

Some NASA officials, who have been scrambling to find a way to make that happen, argue it's less risky than relying on commercial rivals such as SpaceX.

But according to people close to the situation, the White House hasn't yet decided which way to go. In any event, NASA's revised spending plan is expected to emphasize development of a so-called "heavy lift" family of follow-on rockets, able to blast 100 or more tons off the launch pad.

Write to Andy Pasztor at

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A7

Thursday, December 17, 2009

December 16th, 2009
Could there be Life on Jupiter and Saturn's Moons?
Written by Nicholos Wethington

The ongoing search for the existence of life that doesn't call the Earth 'home' could potentially find that life right here in our own Solar System. There is considerable debate about whether evidence for that life has already been found on Mars, but astronomers might do well to look at other, more exotic locations in our neighborhood.
At the recent meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Fransisco, Francis Nimmo, who is a professor of Earth and planetary sciences at UC Santa Cruz, said that the conditions on Saturn's moon Enceladus, and Jupiter's moon Europa may be just right to harbor life.
Nimmo said, "Liquid water is the one requirement for life that everyone can agree on." The water underneath the icy crusts of Enceladus and Europa may just be teeming with alien fish and algae, or more basic forms of life such as bacteria.

Nimmo is one of a long list of scientists speculating on the existence of life on these watery moons. A discovery of any life form originating from a planet other than the Earth "would be the scientific discovery of the millennium," Nimmo said. And even saying that is an understatement.

If life were able to exist in the watery oceans of the moons around Saturn and Jupiter, Nimmo said, it would mean that the 'habitable zone' around a star would extend much further out than previously thought, to moons that orbit large gas giants in other systems around faraway stars.

The possible ocean under the surface of Enceladus may receives its heat from the tidal forces of Saturn. That is, if there is an ocean under the surface of Enceladus, as that topic is still somewhat debated among astronomers. The constant tug of Saturn's gravitational pull may stretch the interior of the planet enough to heat the water below the crust of ice, which is estimated to vary in thickness between 25km to 45km. Geysers of frozen water forced out of crack on Enceladus' surface have been observed by the Cassini mission, and the craft has even flown through the plume of one of these jets.

Here's a video of Carolyn Porco, who leads the imaging team on the Cassini mission, talking about the potential for life inside the moon, and some of the discoveries made by Cassini so far:

Evidence for the ocean under Europa's icy skin comes from the Galileo mission, which passed by the moon in 2000 and took measurements of the moon's magnetic field. Variations in the magnetic field have led astronomers to believe there is a vast ocean of water under the surface, leading to natural suppositions about the potential of its habitability.

Europa's ocean is heated much in the same way as that of Enceladus: both moons have an eccentric orbit around their much more massive planets, and this orbit causes a shift in the way the planet tugs on their interiors, causing friction in the cores which in turn heats them up.

The core and surface of these moons both are possible sources of chemicals that are necessary for life to form. Impacts from comets can leave molecules on the surface, and light from the Sun breaks down compounds as well. Organic molecules and minerals may originate in the cores of the moons, streaming out into the watery 'mantle'. Such nutrients could potentially support small communities of exotic bacteria like those seen around hydrothermal vents here on Earth.

Of course, just because these moons are habitable doesn't mean that life exists there, as Nimmo and other planetary scientists are quick to point out. Cassini may still provide evidence of life on Enceladus, as the data from this last flyby of the plumes is still being analyzed. Future missions to Europa, such as the proposed 'interplanetary submarine', may also give us an answer to the question of life's existence elsewhere, and of course the quest continues for a mission to Mars that will finally give us some idea of its habitability now or in the past.

Until the data comes back from these missions, though, we'll still have to wait and speculate.

Source: UC Santa Cruz press release