The Curious Case for Methane on Mars, methane and active organics discovered on Mars (Issue #32)

 

By:  Nicole Willett

methane molecule 2 drsusanrubinOn December 16, 2014 at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco, a panel of scientists working on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity Rover data announced what we have all been waiting decades to hear.  John Grotzinger stated unequivocally, “…there is methane occasionally present in the atmosphere of Mars and there are organics preserved in (…) rocks on Mars.”

Why is this important?  All life on Earth that we have discovered so far is carbon based, aka organic.  Carbon is found in the DNA of all life forms on Earth.  Carbon can bind with many other elements to form thousands of molecules that are involved in biological processes.  Needless to say, finding organics and methane is a game changer for all of science, from astronomy to zoology.  Organics in general refer to molecules that are often found as components of life.  We know from studying life forms on Earth that methane is a common organic molecule that is a waste product of bacteria and macro organisms.  In fact approximately 90% of Earth’s methane has a biological origin.  However, about 10% of methane on Earth is a result of geological activity.  According to author Jeffrey Bennett from the University of Colorado, Boulder, “The amount of methane in the atmosphere appears to vary regionally across Mars, and also seems to vary with the Martian seasons.  This has led some scientists to favor a biological origin (…)if the source is volcanic (…) the amount of (…)heat necessary for methane release [could] be sufficient to maintain pockets of liquid water underground.”  Pockets of liquid water would be conducive to life.

blog 32 eath marsThe Earth and Mars have many similarities including a 24 hour and 24 hour 37 minute day respectively, a similar axial tilt causing seasons to occur, a rocky surface with many of the same types of rocks and minerals (which may be used as a source of energy), volcanic activity and hydrothermal vents past and/or present, water that is/was fresh, salty, acidic, and/or basic.  Now and perhaps most important of all, organic matter and methane.  In addition to the aforementioned facts, the fleet of rovers and orbiters that have arrived at Mars have proven an environment conducive to microorganisms existed and may currently exist on the Red Planet.   We know this thanks to the many spacecraft that have visited Mars and sent back ample amounts of data.

blog 32 natgeo3The Viking missions were sent to Mars in the mid 1970’s.  They carried a variety of scientific instruments.  Some of them sampled the atmosphere and some examined the regolith.  The results of these experiments have been studied repeatedly since they were performed.  The Labeled Release Experiment, designed by Dr. Gil Levin, made a controversial and still contested discovery of life on Mars.  Viking also discovered methane at 10.5 parts per billion (ppb) in 1976.  It seems both of these discoveries were discounted over the past four decades.

While utilizing the NASA Infrared Telescope in Hawaii, Michael Mumma, of NASA Goddard, observed methane using ground based instrumentation in 2003.  When he followed up the observations in 2006, the methane had vanished.  Some scientists have stated that is indicative of a seasonal plume.  According to NASA’s astrobiology website Mumma and his team observed 20-60 ppb of methane near the poles and up to 250 ppb near the equator.  It is interesting to note that the levels of methane are significantly higher near the equator where the temperature is higher and possibly more conducive to life.

Concentrations_of_methane_on_Mars esaA decade ago the European Space Agency (ESA) announced they had discovered plumes of seasonal methane on Mars.  In March of 2004, ESA announced that the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer on Mars Express detected about 10 ppb of methane in the Martian atmosphere.  A spectrometer is a device that “looks” at a sample of something, in this case atmospheric gases, and takes reading(s) to determine what molecules make up the sample being observed.  A computer generated graph of some type is then read by scientists to analyze the spectral data.

Although ESA and NASA themselves had previously detected methane on Mars, it was important to for NASA to continue the search, using the MSL Curiosity, on the ground in order to again verify the results.  The public may get frustrated with the continuous “discoveries” of methane, but science is always retesting results to essentially try to “disprove” itself in order to make sure the facts are real.  The Curiosity Rover landed on Mars in August of 2012.  It seemed that almost as soon as the Curiosity Rover started exploring her new home on Mars she discovered a dry riverbed where fresh water once flowed in Gale crater.  When she drilled into the rock dubbed “John Klein” scientists realized that the rock contained what biologists call CHNOPS. That acronym stands for Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Phosphorus, and Sulfur. Those are the six elements needed for all life on Earth to exist.  Another discovery were molecules that included carbon which scientists called “simple organics”.  The most recent and most important discovery includes more complex organic molecules than previously discovered, such as methane and chlorobenzene.  We know Mars is enriched with all of the same chemicals to make life that the Earth has.  This latest and greatest discovery puts to rest the long debate about whether Mars has organics.  Some scientists and laymen have been vehemently denying that it is possible.  For the community of “believers” in Martian organics, we feel Methane SAM graph nasa 2vindicated.

The amount of methane reported over the past forty years on the Red Planet ranges from 5-250 ppb from a variety of sources, NASA, ESA, orbiters, rovers, and ground based Earth telescopes.  Many peer reviewed scientific journal articles have been published regarding Martian methane and the possible explanations for its existence.  Some of the potential sources of methane include the presence of life, volcanoes, hydrothermal vents, and several other geological processes.  Methane breaks up and only has a lifespan of several decades to 300 years, which is a short time on a planetary scale. It then breaks down into water and carbon dioxide.  That being said, since methane is present on Mars, it must be getting replenished biologically or geologically currently.

Over the last few decades scientists have discovered amino acids in comets and meteorites, which we know slam into planets, so it is common sense to see that whether Mars originally had organics or not that organics would have landed there sometime in the last 4.5 billion years.  In 2012 it was announced that even Mercury has organics on its surface.  The moon Enceladus, orbiting Saturn, has organics spewing out of the ice covered surface from the salty ocean below.  It seems that everywhere we look we find organics.  We must ask ourselves, how easy is it to form organics and life?  Is life everywhere?

Mars Society Logo (High quality)“[A] striking aspect of the Curiosity discovery is that the concentration of methane detected varies sharply over time. That can only be the case if the source of the methane is locally concentrated, as a globally spread source could not cause such sharp variations. Thus, there may be a patch of ground relatively close to Curiosity which is the source of the emissions, and, therefore, a prime target to drill in an attempt to find subsurface life. Similar biologically suspect spots may well exist elsewhere. We need to locate such spots, and then send human explorers to drill and find out what lies beneath,” states Dr. Robert Zubrin, President of the Mars Society.

~Humans to Mars as a bridge to the stars

[Images: drsusanrubin.com, NASA, NatGeo, ESA, NASA, TMS]

Note: The article snip above is from the Jan 1977 National Geographic magazine.  Below are the next few paragraphs.

blog 32 natgeo4blog 32 NatGeo1blog 32 Natgeo2

The Importance of Scientific Literacy to a Human Mission to Mars (Issue #31)

By: Nicole Willett

Mars Society Logo (High quality)I could start this article off with a plethora of statistics and facts about how poorly we are doing in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects in the US.  But we all know how poorly our performance has been for several decades.  The fault lies with everyone, not one group of people (ex: teachers or parents) or one political party. We must all bear the responsibility for the downfall of the scientific literacy in our country.  We have all been let down and we are letting our children down.  They have been promised a bright future full of endless possibilities, such as space exploration, humans to Mars, and to the stars.

Insp mars shipOur culture values possessions over knowledge.  Where has our passion for exploration gone?  When did we become satisfied with things instead of educating our children and ourselves to become a better civilization?  We are quickly becoming IDIOCRACY instead of INTERSTELLAR.  We have the tools for exceptional accomplishments.  The ability and the knowledge are available.  What is wrong with our culture?  We are eating ourselves from the inside out.  We are picking political sides as if they were our favorite NFL team.  We side with them for their jersey color, not what they really stand for or accomplish.  We must stop, think, and seriously ponder about what we are doing to our world.  We must disidentify with our “team” and decide what the best course for humanity is.   The course we are on has a dismal ending.

Money and possessions are a façade.  Civilization is a reality.  We are choosing the outcome of our reality by teaching our children to value materialism.  Few treasure truly tangible things such as education, inspiration, and exploration.  It is imperative that our culture shift gears.  We are destroying our planet, and with climate deniers at the helm of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which will put them in charge of climate policy, we are in a bleak state.  We may not be meant to stay on Earth, but we are meant to care for her.

blog 20 MWG and sun teachastronomy comI am grateful for those of us who have made it our life’s mission to educate and inspire others to explore.  Unfortunately we are too few.  When I read the National Geographic article in 1988 titled, Mission to Mars, it changed my life in an instant.  We were supposed to have humans on Mars by 1996.  It is now 18 years later and we have made little progress.  Thanks to incredibly imaginative and entrepreneurial people like Elon Musk, CEO-SpaceX, Dennis Tito, Founder-Inspiration Mars, and Bas Lansdorp, Co-founder-Mars One, we have a chance to send humans to Mars.  Please help inspire young people to get back to who we truly are as humans, explorers not consumers.

I long for my children, and yours, to live in a world where the possibilities are endless, where each child has a true chance to grow up and obtain a STEM degree and know that they will truly make a difference in the world and on other worlds in our solar system and others.  We must take humanity to Mars as a bridge to the stars.

 

[Images: The Mars Society, Inspiration Mars, NatGeo]

3-D Printing on Mars (Issue #30)

3-D Printing on Mars

blog 30 gizmodo com3-D Printing, what is it and what is all of the hubbub? A very simple analogy of 3-D printing would be if you imagine a regular printer, printing ink onto paper and going back and forth layering the ink on the paper thousands of times until you build up a three dimensional object. When a 3-D printer is in action, it may use a variety of different types of “ink”, including types of plastic, cement, and just about any material that has a liquid viscosity that later dries and hardens. This technology is widely considered to be a game changer for everything from daily life to manufacturing and construction. Almost anything can be printed with the correct type of printer and “ink”. For example, if you are missing a vital piece of plastic for your washing machine, as long as you can acquire a digital copy, by scanning the object or downloading it, you can send that information to the printer and voilà, your washer is now easy to fix. A variety of different types of three dimensional printing machines are now available. The prices vary dramatically. Some home use printers are as inexpensive as $300. Commercial printers can range from $10,000 to $20,000.

The public has been inundated with news regarding humans to Mars over the past couple of years. So many organizations are planning trips to Mars that it can be confusing.   See blog #25, The Many Plans for Mars. However, this can be good news for everyone. The more awareness that is being raised, the more education will be sought. This situation will lend itself to one or more of these organizations being successful. The implications for the human exploration and settlement of Mars are immense. Humanity will change in a way that cannot be undone. We will never be the same once we are an interplanetary species.

blog 30 3d-printed-mars-baseDr. Robert Zubrin, President of The Mars Society, has stated that we must use the resources that are available to us on the Red Planet in order to survive and thrive. This is extremely important since every pound of material we launch from Earth will be very expensive, approximately $50,000. So we must live off the land, as much as we possibly can in order to reduce the cost of the mission. 3-D printers can use the Martian soil to print homes, buildings for humans to live and work in, and other essential infrastructure for a society. With the correct additives to the soil and water, which is already present in the soil, 3-D printing should be a breeze on Mars.

A variety of sizes and types of 3-D printers can be used on Mars. Equipment, furniture, and other daily essentials can be printed from the resources already present on the Red Planet. If your 3-D printer needs a part, you can print it! This technology will help make human settlement on Mars much more doable. With so many organizations and companies have plans to send humans to Mars to live permanently, we must utilize all of the technology available to make the transition from Earthling to Martian as simple as possible.

Video link from The Science Channel about 3-D printing on Mars:

blog 30 sci

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v4IbS42D8jk

[Images: gizmodo.com, space.com]

 

Life on Mars (Issue #29)

by: Nicole Willett

pia16453-43Throughout history, humans have looked at Mars in wonder and have made up myths, legends and science fiction stories about civilizations. When Mariner flew by Mars in 1965 hopes for finding a thriving civilization on the Red Planet were quickly dashed by the 22 postage stamp sized images that slowly trickled back to Earth. The images showed a barren, rocky terrain. For many though, their passion of finding out more details kept the interest in finding life on Mars alive. In 1976 a life detecting experiment invented by Dr. Gil Levin was sent on the Viking I and II Landers to investigate whether microbial life existed in the soil on Mars.

Viking LRLevin named his experiment Gulliver, but it was renamed by NASA to the Labeled Release (LR) experiment.  Viking I and Viking II, which were 4,000 miles away from each other, both carried the LR. A brief summary of the LR is as follows; first a sample of Martian soil is scooped up and sent into a thimble-sized chamber, then a tiny drop of nutrient containing radioactive 14C is squirted onto the soil sample, and, if microorganisms are present, they will consume the nutrient and then give off radioactive gas.  When the LR was performed on the surface of Mars, after the first squirt of nutrient was added onto the soil gas immediately began to come off.  A spike was seen on the graph tracing the gas, with a growing curve indicating a positive result for life. The gas that was released by this experiment kept slowly evolving for the entire seven days the LR was run. In order to verify the results a control experiment had been designed by NASA. The control was LR2 graphdesigned to determine whether the result was chemical or biological. The control had a negative result indicating thepositive response was from life. This is because chemistry could not “die” from the modest heat imposed by the control experiment, but a living organism could. Since the control came back negative and the LR was positive, it can be ascertained that there is life on Mars. Thus the LR detected life on Mars according to the criteria set by the Viking team and NASA. Viking I and II both had a positive result for life with the LR experiment. Several different life detecting or life-related experiments were in the payload of Viking. Each one had different degree of sensitivity. The LR was the only test that was positive for life, but it was much more sensitive than the others. The LR was able to detect as few as 20 bacterial cells in its development tests.  The other experiments were orders of magnitude less sensitive which easily explains why they were negative versus the positive results of the LR.

LR imageThe Gas Exchange (GEX) and the Pyrolytic Release Experiment (PR), the other life detections tests, failed to detect life in the soils of Mars.  When another experiment failed to find any organic matter in the Martian soil, NASA made a consensus that there was no life on the Red Planet. However, science does not work by consensus. Science is supposed to review any postitive or indicative results and retest them. That is the scientific method every third grader in America learns. Scientists must retest their experiment to get accurate results. If one out of three tests is positive, then you must rerun the positive experiment to get an accurate result. What scientists should not do is stop sending life detection experiments to Mars because their results are deemed ambiguous. NASA has refused to send any other life detection experiments to Mars since then. That is not science. Each time Levin has proposed a new life detection experiment to go to Mars, he has been denied. NASA keeps stating that they are looking for habitats that might have supported life long ago.  Nest they say they will look for “biosignatures” of long extinct life. If we had the technology to search for existing life on Mars in 1976, what is stopping us from looking for exixting life on Mars now? We have learned so much more about the Red Planet since then, it should be a slam dunk to send a convincing life detection device to Mars.

Each successive mission to Mars has discovered that Mars definitely has two things, rocks and water. The Viking missions (1976), the Pathfinder and Sojourner Rover (1997), Spirit (2004-2010) and Opportunity Rovers (2004-currently operational), Phoenix Lander (2008), and Curiosity (2012-currently operational) have all confirmed many times over that there are water and rocks on Mars. This has taken nearly 40 years to accomplish, even though we acquired that information with the Viking missions.  The next rover, with a working name of Mars 2020, is to be very similar to Curiosity with the addition of a cache to store rock samples in. This cache will be stored on Mars until a later date when another rover or humans (as a NASA scientists stated tongue and cheek) will launch it back to Earth, as a sample return, for further study. But how do they know any Martian life will survive the six to nine-month trip to Earth when we don’t know what they eat, breathe or what environment they need?  And, if they do survive, might they be harmful?  Bad idea!  According to MIT planetary scientist, Dr. Ben Weiss, about one ton per year of Martian meteorites fall to Earth, which over time equals billions of tons of rocks from Mars have arrived on Earth. He states, as do others, “It is possible we are Martians.” Since that is the case, what is the purpose of sending another rover very similar to Curiosity to blog 22 MarsAsteroidImpactMars to store a cache of rocks on the surface for an unknown amount of time?

This is a perplexing set of facts. So many issues arise with this plan. Such as, contamination upon reentry, time of the cache sitting on the surface of Mars, and lack of foresight and appropriate planning. According to Dr. Robert Zubrin, President of the Mars Society, we get samples of rocks from Mars all the time. We have many meteorites from Mars in labs being studied currently. The mission that should be funded is the Icebreaker Life mission. This mission will have a one meter long drill that will peer below the surface of Mars specifically searching for conclusive evidence of life. (see Issue # 21 for more details) In an email from Dr. Chris McKay he stated, “We are currently working on the Icebreaker mission and we will be proposing it to the current round of Discovery missions. We expect proposals due Dec 2014. We will aim for a 2018 launch.” This is a much more reasonable plan and should have been funded years ago.

Since the controversial Viking results, many scientific journal articles have been published supporting the results while others have attempted to discredit them. Many new experiments have been developed that have supported the LR positive results. At this point it may be a matter of what you choose to believe regarding the LR results. However, science is true whether or not you believe it. I believe there is life on Mars. All of the necessary ingredients are on Mars for life to exist. Mars has ample amounts of water, minerals, and other chemical nutrients in the soil. Habitability has been established and reestablished. The question is, “Do we want to find life on Mars?” It depends who you ask.

 

A special thank you to Dr. Gil Levin for his years of dedication and hard work on this subject and for his generous time and assistance with this blog.

[Images: NASA, Levin, Astrobio.net]

Eyes in the Martian Sky (Issue #28)

by:  Kathryn Sharp

aaWhile the rovers Opportunity and Curiosity cruise the surface of Mars, three operating satellites orbit above, keeping a keen eye on the planet. In addition to documenting the surface of Mars with an unprecedented level of detail, these satellites continue to provide critical support for ground missions. They relay vital communications between the rovers and Earth, monitor surface weather, look for safe driving paths around large boulders, and identify points of interest for further study. Although they often work in tandem to support the rovers, each orbiter has made its own fundamental contributions to our understanding of the red planet.

Mars Odyssey over Mars South PoleThe oldest of the three currently operational satellites orbiting Mars is the 2001 Mars Odyssey. Named as a tribute to science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke’s beloved work “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Mars Odyssey has been plugging away for well over a decade in low Mars orbit and has set the record as the longest serving spacecraft orbiting a planet other than Earth. Early in its mission, Mars Odyssey surprised scientists by detecting levels of water ice in the Martian soil that far exceeded expectations. This discovery intensified interest in the history of water on Mars and what that history could mean for the possibility of life there. Though perhaps its most important science work is done, Mars Odyssey has been granted numerous mission extensions, primarily to serve as a telecommunications relay between rovers Opportunity and Curiosity and Earth.

In 2003, the European Space Agency launched its Mars Express orbiter in with the goal of further investigating the presence of water and looking for chemical indicators of life. Mars Express is equipped with a host of instruments to accomplish these goals, including: two spectrometers, sub-surface radar intended to look for and map out frozen water beneath Mars’ soil, and among others, the High Resolution Stereo Camera (HRSC) which can take high-resolution photos of large regions on the surface.

040824_mars_express_02In the past decade, Mars Express has made remarkable discoveries. In January of 2004, ESA announced that water ice had been discovered in the Southern polar ice cap using its infrared spectrometer OMEGA. This discovery confirmed the 2002 findings of Mars Odyssey, which noted large quantities of water ice locked in the soil. Later that year, a large plume of methane was detected in the atmosphere. Since methane deteriorates in the Martian atmosphere in only 400 years or so, scientists postulated that the source of the gas must be ongoing: either organic life or volcanic activity. In either case, this exciting finding indicates Mars is, or was, more active than previously thought. However, recent measurements by Curiosity detect no significant quantities of methane in the atmosphere, calling into question earlier hypotheses. The topic presents a puzzle that will be the focus of several future missions, including the ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter, set for launch in 2016.

The newest satellite to reach Mars, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), carries a suite of state-of-the-art instruments intended to address many of the burning questions left unanswered from previous missions. The most compelling of these is whether or not water persisted on the surface of Mars long enough for organic life to arise. Answering this question continues to be one of the primary science goals of NASA’s entire Mars Exploration Program, and would likely be the focus of any manned mission in the future.

MRO_image-brThankfully, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been incredibly prolific, returning an unprecedented amount of data from Mars since its insertion into orbit in 2006. In 2013, NASA reported that the MRO has returned in total over 200 terabits of data: more than all other missions operating on the Deep Space Network and significantly more than all other previous Mars communications combined.

The majority of this data has come in the form of high-resolution images from the HiRISE camera, which works in conjunction with other instruments aboard the MRO to help scientists understand in detail the dynamics of Martian geology. To do so, the CTX (Context Camera) takes large regional surveys around features of interest, after which HiRISE narrows in to take a close-up photo of that feature. Simultaneously, the onboard spectrometer CRISM analyzes the mineral composition of that same region. By compiling data from these three instruments, scientists can distinguish between sediment deposited by moving water, wind, or other geologic processes and begin to piece together a picture of Mars’ fascinating history.

Warm-season Flows HiRISENot only are these images important for their scientific relevance, but they have also played a powerful role in engaging the public interest in Mars. Never before have we been able to see the surface of another planet in such striking detail. In these images, we are afforded more than a glimpse at a planet that is alive in many ways. Changing seasons, fresh impact craters, landslides, recurring flow-like features, and dunes shifting in the Martian winds, all witnessed from here on Earth. The HiRISE team has reached out to professionals, amateurs, and students with its HiWish Public Suggestion Page. HiWish is a tool that allows any interested citizen to log in and select a target where they think HiRISE should take an image. This is a fantastic opportunity for young scientists to engage with Mars and play a part in exploring its rich topography.

Each day, NASA and the ESA receive an enormous amount of data from the instruments aboard these three spacecraft, providing an invaluable link between the Earth and Mars. When humans finally arrive on the surface of Mars, it will be due in large part to the continued success of these three missions. We have sent them ahead of us to be our mapmakers: to chart safe passage, to help us find resources vital for our survival, and to unlock the secrets of a planet that does not readily tip its hand.

[Images: NASA, JPL, ESA, JPL, JPL]