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NASA Finds Ancient Organic Material, Mysterious Methane on Mars (nasa.gov)
333 points by AstralWalker 8 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 102 comments



It's a sad day that even NASA has to use clickbait titles.

The title is factually correct but it's not very representative of the actual content.

A more appropriate title would be NASA confirms predicted levels of organic carbon in martian soil and long term measurements help scientists identify possible cyclic releases of methane on mars.

Organic molecules are common as hell in space including fairly complex ones, asteroids, comets and space dust are rich in them as well as many other "complex" molecules like ammonia based ones are also everywhere.

Hydrogen is the most common element, Oxygen is the 3rd most common one, Carbon is the 4th and Nitrogen is the 7th and Sulfur is the 10th.

Hydrocarbons are common, ammonia based compounds are common, heck cosmic clouds of sulfuric acid are common.

At this point the main study in Cosmobiology is to figure out how to look for life in an organic rich environment since the amount of it in space is essentially blinds us and effectively made us throw out all of our assumptions out of the window.

So what we left is to either try to identify some cyclic processes in these organic rich environments that cannot be explained by any other means (e.g. the methane, although more likely than not it's tied the temperatures during the summer one way or another).

And look at the inorganic and complex organic processes such as minerals that may indicate life and the search for much more complex organic compounds like uric acid and urea since we've identified microbes, fungi and other types of life with uric acid and urea pathways where's it was previously thought that only vertebrates (excluding fish) and mammals (respectively) had these pathways.


If they wrote Organic Molecules people wouldn't know what to think either, when it comes to clickbait, this is quite off-white area still.

> NASA confirms predicted levels of organic carbon in martian soil and long term measurements help scientists identify possible cyclic releases of methane on mars

This is a general public press release (besides being 80 characters to long for a HN news headline), not a scientific paper. Also NASA's existence is quite directly releated to how many people think it's important. As long as science need PR to get funded, this type of headline and artistic renderings are the lessest of all evils.


Predictable levels of organic material then.

I understand why they are doing it I just don’t think this one was very appropriate title, especially considering the content and the average “layman” who will read a NASA press release directly.


Would potentially live enabling matter be precise enough? I just think the adjective organic alone is too overloaded with all kinds meaning. Even organic molecule is just historic and obsolete when it comes to being descriptive.


I kept organic because NASA used it. While this is a broad press release this isn’t exactly for TMZ I wouldn’t mind say PopSci running this story with a title saying “NASA confirms expected levels of Carbon on mars and discovers new phenomena that may indicate life”.

The title they chose was simple not well it’s meh. They tied a “simple” adjective to a more complex term as in Ancient Organic Material and Mysterious Carbon that’s the clickbaity part and it’s not even that good as a clickbait as you said.


> Even organic molecule is just historic and obsolete when it comes to being descriptive.

Why so?


News flash: science can be boring. Chill out.


This isn’t about science being boring this isn’t actually boring news it’s just a weird title because it doesn’t try to dumb things down as much as as just being dumb.

Anyone who understands what Organic or Methane is doesn’t really care of the Ancient or Mysterious adjectives used to describe them in the title anyone who would be appealed by these adjectives likely as mentioned above doesn’t understand what these adjectives describe.


Methanogens have been discovered in 3.5B yr old rock on earth [1]. Organisms capable of producing methane have been identified only from the domain Archaea.

Other methane discoveries in solar system [2]:

  - 2004, methane was discovered in the Martian atmosphere by M.J. Mumma of NASA's Goddard Flight Center
  - 2004, martian atmosphere finding verified by the Mars Express Orbiter
  - 2005, Titan's atmosphere by the Huygens probe
  - 2015, the Cassini orbiter spacecraft on discovered the Enceladus (Saturn's moon) plume which has all the ingredients for methanogenesis-based life forms to feed from.  Suggested hot water is interacting with rock beneath the sea.
  - 2017, new findings of Enceladus plume support that conclusion and add that the rock appears to be reacting chemically.
  - 2018, NASA disclosed in a press conference that its Curiosity rover had documented seasonal fluctuations of atmospheric methane levels on Mars.
[1] https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn8882-methane-making-m... [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methanogenesis#Extra-terrestri...


But, presence of methane doesn't necessarily indicate life. I mean, doesn't Titan have oceans of liquid methane with no known indication of life?

I get that detecting previously unseen organic compounds on Mars is a big deal, but it doesn't necessarily indicate that life was once present on Mars. I think it increases the probability that it could have existed, but it falls short of a conclusive "Life once existed on Mars" claim.


We didn’t detect any previously unseen organic material on Mars.

We’ve finally detected carbon concentration simmilar to what we’ve expected to see based on mars originated meteorites found on earth and we’ve now have more evidence for a cyclic release of methane on Mars however methane isn’t rare it’s a combination of the most and the 4th most common elements in the universe.


Methane isn't rare, but it also isn't stable. Something must be producing it, somehow. That's the interesting part.


Methane like all other simple and even complex organic and near organic compounds is produced through photochemistry constantly in the solar system.

Titan is full of it, Jupiter has more of it likely than all of the solar system combined, and we’ve already proven that cosmic dust and comets smell like farts.

Mars with its thin atmosphere and lack of magnetic field would be producing organic compounds constantly as high energy cosmic and solar radiation hits the surface.

If anything for Mars it seems that the source of hydrogen might be a bigger mystery but it should have enoguh water in the soil to be ionized and broken down into molecular hydrogen and oxygen allowing organic compounds to form.

The interesting part is the cyclical release during the hottest months of the year it could be biological but it could also and much much much more is just a seasonal pheonomon tied to the temperature.


> cosmic dust and comets smell like farts.

Just imagining a kid at a science fair having made that legitimate discovery but being dismissed by teachers


Methane is odorless [1].

AFAIK the smell in farts is mercaptanes (thiols, organic sulfur compounds).

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methane


Yep but Sulfur compounds are not rare, ammonia, sulfuric acid many other sulfides and non sulfuric complex molecules like formaldehyde exist in space in plenty.


But why it is not stable on Mars? Mars is colder than Earth and have no free oxygen. Maybe underground gas leaks in atmosphere and, because atmosphere is much thinner, colder, and lacks O2, it just stays in atmosphere longer and in higher relative concentration.


Would any Earthling Methanogens survive on Mars? How many of them would there be with nothing to kill them?


Hydrocarbons are also produced photochemically, Jupiter probably has more methane than anywhere else in the solar system (possibly combined but it can’t do the back of the envelope math for this one) despite it being only a small fraction of a fraction of a percent of its atmosphere.


It's a bit amusing to read the story, see the accompanying photo:

https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/thumbnails/image/pi...

and have an automatic reaction of feeling proud of the rover for a job so well done. Six years in that environment and still going. NASA obviously deserves the credit, the rover evokes that reaction non-the-less. I feel like petting it and telling it how good of a rover it has been. It makes me thankful for the immense effort, time, and resources that NASA puts into their missions, so projects like Curiosity can go on producing for years longer than they're originally scheduled to.


How does it get this pic from that angle? Or was this taken right after it landed?



It's been edited to remove the arm with the camera. You can see it in the shadow.


It's a collage of several pictures.


This is the way almost all NASA images are generated. I don't think it was edited specifically to remove the arm, and it likely wasn't "photoshopped" in that sense. They likely took an array of many images, selected the best ones for each grid section, and stitched them together.

I worked on image processing software for MER, MGS, Odyssey, and other Mars missions. While my work was on thermal imaging systems, and not the optical camera used in this image, the same principles apply. I specifically worked on software to select and align images to produce mosaics that looked seamless.


I have a two-camera panoramic camera (one lens on each side) and you can't see the monopod if you set it on one. When the two half-spheres are stitched together, the monopod ends up being stiched away, because the lenses poke out laterally from the body of the camera, they both can see behind and around the monopod, so each view can crop the monopod out and it looks like it's floating. It's a bit spooky.


This is an even more likely reason. I'd forgotten that MER had a stereo camera. If you look at a photo of the rover (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_Exploration_Rover), you can see the stereo camera on the end of the arm. I'm changing my theory to this.


Er, it's Curiosity in the original article, not MER, but the same principle applies.


Does anyone at NASA consider that these practices are deceptive? Remember they also add false color, and I don't think I've ever seen the manipulation process noted. At times I've looked for true images, and it's been difficult to find out if any image is 'real' or manipulated. Imagine if a newspaper published photos like that; it would be seen as deceit.

Personally, it makes me feel that NASA's public announcements are not trustworthy, that they have a sophisticated PR machine and we're not really seeing the truth.


They are not deceptive in the least. Skepticism is fine, but your question comes from a fundamental lack of understanding.

As an example, when you see a pretty picture of Mars in a magazine, it's composed of dozens or hundreds of individual images, captured as long, thin image strips, as a satellite orbits the planet. Those images come in looking absolutely nothing like the final product. You're viewing a rectangle, but the source data represents a strip along the surface of a sphere. It needs to be rectified, aligned to dozen of other such strips, and projected on to a flat surface. Unless you're projecting these images back on to a sphere, there's a whole lot of stretching and alignment going on. The images are taken at different times of the day, during different seasons. Software needs to balance the albedo so that it doesn't look like a Picasso painting.

Most NASA images are false color, because they are not taken with normal optical cameras. Much of the good science comes from imaging outside the human visual spectrum. The THEMIS instrument on Mars Odyssey images 10 infrared spectral bands, none of which can be seen with the human eye. Other instruments record ultraviolet light. There is no way for humans to see any of this data, so they pick three spectral bands and assign them to red, green, and blue so that humans can see something. Different band selections produce different images of the same area and serve to emphasize different minerals or other natural materials. Science is done on all bands of the data, but pictures help provide context.

The raw data for all these images are freely available to anyone, but asking to see the "real" image before it's been processed is a meaningless request. There is no such thing as a "true image".


Space probes’ cameras are not optimized for pretty pictures. They collect scientific data that oftentimes falls outside of the visible spectrum. For PR material they obviously synthesize visible images from this data, as the layperson appreciates pretty pictures with false colors, as opposed to six or more images with grayscale intensities at various wavelengths.


You have to be more careful about what you mean by "these practices".

False-color images, in which some quantity you care about (e.g., water vapor, [1]) is projected into a map or spatial coordinate, are pervasive throughout the sciences. Nobody would seriously contemplate putting some kind of interpretive warning on such images, because we all know you can't see water vapor or ocean salinity directly.

From such non-deceptive cases, you have a slippery slope.

After you work with spatially-mapped imagery for a while, it's natural to insert (invisible) infrared channels of an earth-observing satellite as the red channel of an RGB image. Similarly, it's natural to color-code certain spectral bands of solar images, in extreme UV, as a shortcut to highlight flares, even though you can't come close to seeing these bands directly [3] [4].

It's also natural to adjust the contrast or related properties like white balance, of planetary images. After all, your own monitor is adjusting the contrast through a gamma correction [2] that isn't well-standardized.

I think people have complained about these kinds of enhancements before -- in some cases, with reason -- so now you do in fact see disclaimers about contrast enhancement on NASA images. [5] If you pay closer attention, I think you will notice these disclaimers, too. (I did not cherry-pick [5], I just looked at the JPL news feed until I came to a news release that might involve a real-world scene - the next example I saw was [6], which also has a disclaimer).

I haven't been involved in that many NASA press releases, although I have done work with the investigator mentioned in [1]. Of course, for a press release, you have to simplify complex issues and make analogies and all that stuff. Hopefully the science comes through, and also hopefully, there is a link to the published paper which has the technical details. That last is the key, because it offers some guarantee that the result was vetted, and a method to review the original data.

The amount of care that goes in to getting calibrated data is hard to convey. It's critically important, and all the science done at NASA and with NASA data depends on it.

For instance, just think for a bit about all the geometric and photometric calibration that had to be done to mosaic up the little self-portrait image of Curiosity. They had to back out the joint angles of all the actuators from the camera all the way back to the robot, and color-correct for different exposures, and rescale to account for distance differences, and account for parallax with a camera lens model (which itself had to be calibrated) and .... And that's just for a non-science image. It doesn't really need to be photometrically calibrated.

The actual science images would have much more careful localization and photometric calibration. A person I work with routinely cross-calibrates in-situ instrument footprints of size ~1mm onto this imagery to get the correspondence between mineral grains (visible in camera images) and mineralogy information.

For instance, the widely-used CAHVOR(E) geometric camera model that maps pixel indexes (i,j) in the CCD array, to physical locations in space, was invented in 1978 at JPL [7]. And things have come a long way since then. As a sample of the documentation of the MAHLI camera that took those images, see [8]. That paper was followed with an even more detailed post-landing calibration document [9] - about 100 pages, condensed from years of R&D and calibration.

What is my point? First, it is always a stretch to map the data from a special sensor like that back to an RGB image. And second, if you really do want to understand the relation of what you're seeing back to the original physical setup (i.e., learn the "truth" as revealed by the measurement), you have to do a lot of geometric/photometric analysis. And third, rather astonishingly, that analysis is also done routinely, and published for whoever wants to read/critique/improve.

[1] https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/spaceimages/details.php?id=pia21209

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamma_correction#Windows,_Mac,...

[3] https://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/how-sdo-sees-the-sun

[4] https://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/sdo-aia-171-angstrom/

[5] https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=7137

[6] https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=7118

[7] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0146664X78...

[8] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11214-012-9910-4

[9] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/278728737_Curiosity...


Wow, thank you for such a informative response. I know that in any field high precision and accuracy generally are very expensive (something about the first 90% being cheap, and the last 10% ...), so I expected it would be a complex process - especially given the hyper-constrained resources on Mars. But wow - sounds fun.

HN is not the usual audience, of course; most people don't think to ask the question. And of course, maybe others republish the images without noting the alterations. And it seems my criticism/question is outdated, as you say NASA has made more effort to address this issue.

> Nobody would seriously contemplate putting some kind of interpretive warning on such images, because we all know you can't see water vapor or ocean salinity directly.

It's hard to for experts to underestimate what 'we all know' (I and my peers have the same problem in my field - look at what HN users think typical computer users know, can grasp, and will do); looking at that map[0] I could easily imagine many people thinking it was somehow real. Here's a recent story, no exaggeration: I was watching a sports commentary show widely praised as among the most intelligent, and they had on a guest who revealed that he had studied astrophysics in a prior life. One of the commentators asked (and I'm paraphrasing, but this was really the question):

Maybe you can settle a argument for (another commentator) and me: What is further from New York, Los Angeles or the Moon? Because I can see the Moon from New York, but I can't see Los Angeles.

[0[ https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/spaceimages/details.php?id=pia21209


Thanks for the detailed explanations.

I wish space science put a little bit more focus on trying to produce true-color images to the best extent possible. Scientists themselves might be primarily interested in the scientific data, but everyone is also interested in knowing how those things look. That is, if we were to look at them with our own eyes, what would we see?

The danger of unlabeled false-color maps that look "natural" is that they'll later find their way into arts - movies, videogames, posters, book covers, etc.


If it was intentionally "photoshopped" it'd have been an awful job given that you can see the arm abruptly ending in a jagged pixelated edge, so you're probably right.


I just noticed the arm, and now it makes sense. What a wonderful photo of it and Mars. Now my desktop.


Your comment reminded me of this XKCD strip, which for some reason always makes me really sad when I look on it: https://www.xkcd.com/695/


And here is the happy version :) https://imgur.com/VbKV9DF


In a few months science teachers with no real memory of a time when Opportunity wasn't driving around Mars will be teaching freshman who hadn't been born when Opportunity landed on Mars.


I feel like I have to post these two extensions to that strip a previous commenter posted.

https://i.imgur.com/VZvj5S7.jpg

https://imgur.com/VbKV9DF

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12239358


The discovery of microbial life on another world would be as significant as the Copernican revolution.

If indeed the methane signatures are not from serpentinization and we can somehow figure out how in situ to determine if the methane is indeed organically produced then the next question would be "Are these lifeforms the result of Panspermia"? We will then need to figure out how to sequence the chemistry of of these lifeforms which may require us to redefine the definition of "life" altogether. Regardless of the answer as to life independently forming given a certain set of criteria or if carried by meteorites from world to world such would provide good evidence that the universe is at probably teeming with microbial life will shifting eradicate our geocentric views even further.

Note: I have undergraduate degrees in both Geology and Astronomy. IMO Mars is likely a dead world and these methane signatures are from serpentinization as this is the most plausible scenario.


> We will then need to figure out how to sequence the chemistry of of these lifeforms which may require us to redefine the definition of "life" altogether.

I don't see how; we don't have a definition of "life" to redefine. We basically operate on the simpler system of having a big list of things that are life -- everything is categorized as "alive" or "not alive" without reference to a general definition of the category.


Currently the broadest definition of life would be something like: A self-replicating cellular structure having a metabolism to organize resource input and waste. "Cellular" lets us rule out things like fire and crystals, but viruses and RNA soup are also swept away.

I think if we found a population of some kind of self-replicating RNA analogues on another planet, it would be significant enough to revisit that "cellular" constraint. On the other hand, that definition is already so broad that we could conceivably build self-replicating 3D printers that would qualify as life.

We might also take a top-down approach and come up with a good definition of "ecosystem", and then define living things in terms of their role in an ecosystem.


Well, we typically operate from general principles[1] which don't require any particular biology. But of course it could turn out that the biology was similar (if panspermia-style theories are correct, or even just convergent evolution).

1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life#Biology


Everything we consider life now had a common ancestor, and this is de facto definition.


> The discovery of microbial life on another world would be as significant as the Copernican revolution.

The discovery of such remains on Mars would be the saddest thing ever. Like walking along a deserted island and finding a bony corpse's remains-and dealing with the full weight of what once was.


But simultaneously, like discovering the ancient gravesite of what could be your ancestors.


Yeah, and discovering that your ancestors escaped from that planet and came to earth after meeting up Mars. That would be the cheeriest of all discoveries.


This may be a dumb question since I'm pretty ignorant of the chemistry and geology involved but if Mars had ancient oceans with micro organisms (a big if still I know), might it have oil deposits? Seems like that would be pretty useful for future colonization efforts.


Oil forms one to three miles deep (on earth, deeper on mars due to lower gravity leading to lower pressures at a given depth). Sedimentation can reach this order of magnitude on earth[0], so it's reasonable that lipids could have gotten buried that deeply on mars. The trick would be to have a sufficient amount life early enough in Martian history that it would overlap with the planet's period of geological activity. Like xrange said below, this would be interesting to colonists as a source of hydrogen, carbon and water for industry and agriculture. (It used to be life, so we'd dig it up to make it back in to more life.)

Now, for anyone who knows more than me about this, I have a question: can methane ice comets get buried during accretion, eventually climb up the molecular mass ladder into heavy hydrocarbons?

[0]https://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/mgg/image/sedthick9.jpg


You can’t burn oil without atmospheric oxygen.


Feedstock for plastics and other industrial products.

https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=34&t=6

A similar process used in:

https://availabletechnologies.pnnl.gov/technology.asp?id=395

...could be used to reform lower value hydrocarbons into higher value ones.


You can't burn oil without oxygen sure but don't Falcon rockets burn kerosene with liquid oxygen? I believe there are ways to obtain oxygen on Mars despite the shortage of atmosphere. There's also other industrial uses for oil such as plastics. I'm not an expert on any of this though so maybe oil isn't that useful if you don't have reasonably abundant atmospheric oxygen. SpaceX has talked about using methane from Mars to refuel though, it seems plausible to me that other sources of hydrocarbons like oil would be useful to us.


I found the actual published article in Science.

http://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6393/1096.full

Someone with more domain knowledge might appreciate it.


Here's a better source [1]. They found some organic goop, like kerogen. Might actually be organic (as in microbial) in origin.

However methane and organic matter gets discovered every 2 weeks. Perhaps next week they'll rediscover water for the 10,000th time. I get the excitement for the few that weren't aware of it, but it's getting really tiring for the rest of us.

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/06/nasa-rover-hits-organ...


Evidence will get even stronger with the Mars 2020 mission and the more advanced instruments on it, capable of catagorizing more complex chemistries and a high magnification camera and spectrometer on the arm.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_2020

https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/mission/instruments/


Serious question. Why do we spend so much time on Mars?

Are we planning for evacuation of Earth? I think it is clear that Mars is not suitable for mass migration.

Are we looking for evidence that Mars was Earth Version 1 and that we evacuated and came here?

Are we expecting to find minerals that we could ship to earth that do not exist here?

Is it just so we can say we did it? I am curious because we have barely explored Earth and many parts of our planet are still challenging to study. Is it cheaper to explore Mars?


> Is it just so we can say we did it? I am curious because we have barely explored Earth and many parts of our planet are still challenging to study. Is it cheaper to explore Mars?

There is a small[0] group of people interested in studying Mars. There's also a small group of people interested in studying oceans, another small one interested in studying forests, etc. You happen to be reading a comment thread for the article that comes from that first group. The article is about on Mars because it's literally published by the few people interested in Mars. Find a marine biology article, and it'll be focusing on the oceans.

As for why are there more Mars articles than marine biology ones on HN, or even in mass media? There are many reasons, primary of which is probably science fiction, which likes to focus on space[1]. There were also spectacular achievements made recently, many of whom driven by a company with express purpose of enabling colonization of Mars. All those are pretty interesting for the nerdy types that frequent HN.

--

[0] - Compared to the general population.

[1] -- Tangent: there was this one sci-fi series about oceans back in the 90s, seaQuest DSV. I miss it a lot and really wish someone would make something similar again. The first season was mostly about geopolitics and accurate-ish marine science. If there are any bored sci-fi authors here (looking at you, 'cstross), I implore you to write something like The Expanse, but underwater. I spent some time yesterday looking for subsurface sci-fi books, and there aren't many of them.


To quote Sam Seaborn,

"Because it's next"


Firstly, I'm disappointed in HN for the downvotes on this. It's a fair question even if it doesn't agree with your dreams of going to Mars. I feel the downvoters are no reflective of the intellectually curious that made this forum so popular.A mindlessly offensive comment or joke, I'm with the downvote brigade, but this is a different POV only. Shame.

...back to the question.

At the risk of annoying people with more Elon, he said it well with "“I think there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multi-planetary, in order to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen"

So for survivability alone, this is a good move for humans. Kind of like putting your investments in several categories to reduce risk. We have weapons capable of destroying the earth + what nature can do, it makes sense to have safety systems for humanity's existence not earth based.

Also historically with great exploration into the unknown there is an aspect of 'we dont know what the benefit is' but history has taught us there is usually a benefit in finding out, whether that be knowledge gained in the process or what we find at the journey's end. We'd all still be in some part of Africa (more likely extinct really) if people had not wondered what was over the next hill or ocean. We can debate maybe that hasn't been a good thing for the world or some societies, but it has been for the population and knowledge curve of humans.

And your comment 'I think it is clear that Mars is not suitable for mass migration.' Really? Why is that? Id debate this will be like people heading to my home of Australia some 200+ years ago. The first settlers had a hell of a time, many died or eked out limited quality of life. But over time humans have the habit of building on the previous generations progress. So today there is not a great place for mass migration on Mars. But I have no reason to believe we can't change that in 50 or 100 years.


Guys, why are you spending so much time studying lightning? That's never going to be useful - people in 1850.


Mars is very similar to the Earth and was even more similar to it in the past, when it used to have running water on its surface. We can learn a lot about the Earth by studying Mars.


Why can't we do both?


Sure, but why do we do Mars?


We're also exploring Titan, Venus, the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn... the list kind of goes on.

Mars is the easiest place to get to and stay on, aside from the Moon, and is much more interesting than the Moon - thus, more interest. (Venus is harder, the gas giants and their moons are further and thus more expensive.)

(edit: I removed "Venus", because I don't think we have anything actively orbiting it, nor any specific plans to launch anything.)

(edit 2: wait, JAXA has something! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akatsuki_(spacecraft) )


Mars is close, it's not got hellish Venusian weather, it's got a clear atmosphere that's easy to look through, you can roll rovers around on the surface pretty easily. If you want to generalize your ideas about what geology does, then Mars is a nice place to observe that isn't Earth. And if we are very lucky, we will be able to generalize our ideas about life by finding some there. It also has interesting chemistry, weather, etc. It's like Earth, but different. You can test theories about how planets form against it.

It's easier to image the entirety of Mars than it is to image, say, the Pacific. It's easier to send a rover to Mars that will survive for years on Mars than it would be to send one to the depths of the Pacific, too.


> hellish Venusian weather

In Mars' wonderful weather, pressure is so low, at 0.006 atm, that IIRC water boils in the ambient environment, and gravity is 0.376 G.

Around 50 km above Venus, pressure is about equal to Earth, gravity is equal to Earth, and temperatures are a very friendly (relative to all locations in the universe outside Earth) 30-80 deg C. (Also, breathable air is lighter than Venusian atmosphere, so a floating base is a bit easier; and Venus is closer to Earth than Mars.)

There are drawbacks to living in a Venusian airship, or so I'm told, but weather-wise it's pretty good.


Sure, there's engineering issues on Mars, but the longest-lasting device anyone's put on the surface of Venus lasted only a couple hours.

Neither are exactly prime vacation spots, but if you want a target for robotic exploration, Mars is so much easier.


GP has a good point, though. Venus is hostile on the surface, but higher up in the atmosphere the conditions are much nicer, and you could hang dirigibles there. Not interesting if you want to study geology, but very interesting for climate science, and I hear that you could extract enough useful stuff from lower parts of the atmosphere that it could actually be a viable colony spot.


What is your gut instinct for microbial life on Mars?

And in the past? Are we going to fine fossils?


Probably. Make them pay for their own discovery.


I know a bunch of mysterious Mars images were debunked in the past, but I'd very much like to know real explanations about these:

https://cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/150828091203-mars-pyr...

https://i0.wp.com/planetaria.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/3...

http://files.abovetopsecret.com/files/img/ox53f235bf.jpg



Life in the past: probably

Fossils: probably not, those require fairly specific conditions to form

Life now: probably not, but there's a chance.

We have multiple moons with liquid oceans in our solar system. That's where I would place my bets.


I'd be interested in hearing more about why Mars would be a bad place to find fossils?

We have found fossils from 3.5 billion year ago on Earth [0]. Assuming life formed and lived from Noachian - Hesperian periods what would prevent the conditions for fossilization happening at least one place over this very long period of time. I don't know much about Mars geology so what might be obvious to others may not be obvious to me.

[0]: https://news.wisc.edu/oldest-fossils-found-show-life-began-b...


Watched a show recently that indicated that it's likely that Mars encountered a similar event to the presumed Earth/Moon collision, but Mars didn't fare so well. Mars was left lacking a singular large moon to protect it and a fairly unstable wobble of its rotation. It apparently moves between a global ice age to a far more temperate climate around every 120K years. Coupled with a lack of a magnetic field to protect its atmosphere, it's been stripped of most of what we think of life harboring facilities such as atmosphere and prevailing liquid water. This is mostly a recap of what I saw a Science Channel show, so don't judge me too hard - just trying to recap. Definitely not my area of expertise.


I would happily bet good money we will find strong evidence for life on Mars within 10 years of humans' landing (and staying) there.


Life appeared really quickly on Earth as soon as there were oceans so I'm pretty bullish on the idea that there were microbes on Mars at one point.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_the_evolutionary_h...


This kind of articles seems specifically made to say "please don't cut our funds" and not to communicate a newsworthy discovery.

"Ancient organic material", "Mysterious methane" feels like click-bait after you read the content behind it

I hope the NASA keeps getting all the funds it needs, it is just sad that they have to fall in this kind of strategies to do so.


Isn't the methane actually a bit mysterious though?

IIUC, methane should be broken down by interaction with sunlight. So if there is trace methane in the Martian atmosphere, it's either coming from not-depleted sub-surface reserves (in which case: how did it get there?) or chemical processes are actively generating it in the Martian ecosystem somewhere.


I don't think this is egregiously hyperbolic. "Ancient organic material" is exactly what they found. They go out of their way in the article to emphasize that organic molecules exist in many naturally occurring forms that are not indicative of life processes, but that life processes can not be ruled out either. The same applies to the methane finding.

I don't think it's fair to criticize the article itself. It's well-written, level-headed, and self-critical. I think it's fair to criticize their calling a press conference to announce it, rather than just releasing a notice or allowing the articles to be published in due course.

I'm inclined to cut them slack on the marketing style. NASA lives and dies by the whims of a fickle Congress, and they have few opportunities to make headlines. There's a bit of sensationalism or grandstanding at play here. The actual announcement is good science, and plays into their desire for funding to follow up.


Well, I believe NASA is one of those few organizations in the world that's actually doing the humanity a favor. Despite that, it has been criticized for decades. Remember how people complained about millions of dollars that NASA used for Apollo missions? Some even argue(d) that space missions are pointless, and that there are more important issues on the Earth that we should cut NASA's funds. In my view, this view is just outrageous and disgraceful. Astronomy and space exploration is a very humbling science that not only will help us survive our disastrous extinction on this planet, but also makes us realize how unimportant we are in this vast universe, and what issues really matter in the world.

I'd rather see my money go to NASA and be spent on space discovery than see it spent to make useless products, or worse yet, to shed blood.


It was not my intention to criticize NASA, I like it and as I mentioned on my original post I hope they keep getting the funds they need.

My point was that the title seems a bit exaggerated given the content of the article.


I know, I didn't mean that you criticized NASA, I was talking about other people.


Somehow, the article managed to miss what should have be a big part of the announcement. They found evidence of kerogens. That has a bit more impact.


So... I didn't know what kerogens were so I looked it up. Classified as solid organic matter in sedimentary rock. It is formed by the degredation of living matter.

So wouldn't this discovery relating to Mars further hint that it may have supported life in its past?


I’m curious about that as well. The wiki showed that kerogen looks very similar to chlorophyll. So how is it not safe to conclude it was made by life? Are there any non living sources of it?


Why only in the past and not in the present? Methane could be produced from living organisms.


If NASA went on Patreon I'd gladly help fund them if it meant they could just do great science without needing to worry about 'impact'


But to get Patreons to fund them, they'd have to make exciting press releases. That's sort of what they're already doing - make Americans excited about it so they vote for politicians who continue to fund them. I'll bet there are already endeavors on Patreon that you're not funding because they haven't been promoted enough to sound very exciting.


it's true. What can be done about this ? Lottery grants ? Universal Basic science funding ?


Alien fart?


One day I'm going to click one of these articles and see a Martian (or other planet) bone. That's the day I'll be excited.


I'd put pretty high odds on Mars having had life at some point but very low odds on multi-cellular or even eukaryotic life. Show me some microbial mats, I'll be satisfied.


That's actually the day we realize that we're probably screwed: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=UjtOGPJ0URM


Holy shit. I was not expecting that video to turn into an advertisement after 5 minutes.

Most intense submarine ever.


Hopefully we can get a rover near a geologically active area with exposed outcroppings of stone. We might get lucky and spot a fossil!


Won't you know before the article is published?


I'm not impressed. Alien life is over-hyped. I wrote a few words on the topic and these findings do not make me change my mind.

Fair warning: this is a self-plug.

http://winestockwebdesign.com/Essays/Alien_Life.html


Would you say that the creation of the Atomic Bomb was over-hyped because...?

A) It didn't change the scientific paradigm. It was an extension of generally agreed on principles.

B) It didn't effect the day to day work of the majority of scientists.

That seems to be the criteria you are using, and they seem pretty strange to me in this case.


The Manhattan Project resulted in a product. That product changed geopolitics. The discovery of alien life wouldn't produce a product and would not change geopolitics (unless those flying saucers really do exist and are nearby).

Nobody asserts that the discovery of alien life would produce a product. Instead, pundits carry on about “the implications for our understanding of our place in the universe” or some other such rot. That's the focus of commentary on alien life and that's what I critiqued in that essay.


It would have profound philosophical implications, which would surely have a big geopolitical impact over the following decades.




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