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Life is hard to find on Mars

Ed HahnenbergEver since the late 1800s, there have been theories about whether life exists on our neighbor Mars. Some people went so far as to propose the idea that the canals were irrigation canals built by a supposed intelligent civilization on Mars. Percival Lowell was a strong proponent of this view. In 1894 Lowell chose Flagstaff  as the home of his new observatory.

Arizona is a particularly good state for astronomical observations. My former mentor, Mel Martin, lives in the state, and his astrophotographs are among the best in the business. Mel lives in an area where there are few cloudy nights and is far from city lights, with 300 clear nights in a year being the norm.

For Lowell, Flagstaff was an excellent site for astronomical observations. This marked the first time an observatory had been deliberately located in a remote, elevated place for optimal seeing. From 1894, for the next fifteen years, Lowell studied Mars extensively, and made intricate drawings of the surface markings as he perceived them. Lowell more than anyone else popularized the long-held belief that these markings showed that Mars sustained intelligent life forms.

Fast forward to 1976, when two Viking landers touched down upon the surface of the red planet. The Viking landers were the first completely successful spacecrafts to land on Mars. Previous to this time the USSR had made several attempts of landing on the planet. The Soviets’ Mars 2 soft lander crashed on the surface. The Mars 3 soft lander made the first successful landing, but only transmitted 20 seconds of data before it failed. The Mars 6 lander returned some atmospheric descent data, but failed during the descent. The Mars 7 lander missed the planet entirely.

Nasa’s Viking 1 sent the first on-the-ground images of Mars. Below is a panoramic view which looks like a barren desert on earth with a rock-covered surface.

Then came the rovers, Sojourner in 1997, Spirit and Opportunity in 2004, and Curiosity this year.

Currently only two rovers are actively in operation … Opportunity and Curiosity. Opportunity has been trekking the Martian landscape for eight years, snapping stunning images of the planet.

However, most of the attention now is focused on Curiosity. With its HD camera it is sending back amazing pictures of  the Gale Crater.

The above image is of Curiosity’s landing site.

The image above depicts surrounding terrain. Other images have been sent back in 3D.  (Click on both for a larger view.)

However, the primary mission of Curiosity is to find out if there was, or is, life on the planet. Curiosity has detected no methane in its first analyses of the Martian atmosphere — news that will doubtless disappoint those who hope to find life on the Red Planet.

Living organisms produce more than 90 percent of the methane found in Earth’s atmosphere, so scientists are keen to see if Curiosity picks up any of the gas in Mars’ air. But the 1-ton rover has come up empty in the first atmospheric measurements.

“The bottom line is that we have no detection of methane so far,” Chris Webster, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., told reporters today.

“But we’re going to keep looking in the months ahead since Mars, as we all know, may yet hold surprises for us,” added Webster

This initial testing of the atmosphere came up with results different than conclusions reached in 2003.

Substantial plumes of methane in the northern hemisphere of Mars were noted by Dr. Michael Mumma of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

In contrast, the composition of Earth’s atmosphere contains 78.1 percent nitrogen, 20.9 percent oxygen, 0.9 percent argon and 0.1 percent carbon dioxide and other gases. It is obvious that carbon dioxide levels are much too high for animals and humans, but nitrogen levels are very low also, something that many people do not realize. Plants require CO2, but also need nitrogen to survive.The atmosphere of Mars is not the same as the atmosphere of our own planet. Whereas Earth has a sizable amount of nitrogen and oxygen, with small amounts of carbon dioxide and other gases, Mars is composed mostly of carbon dioxide (95.3%), with nitrogen (2.7%), argon (1.6%), oxygen (.2%), and other trace gases. This obviously presents a serious problem for Martian colonization. Humans cannot survive in such an atmospheric composition even if the air pressure were at Earth sea level.

Our latest rover will have two years to study the geology and atmosphere of Mars. It certainly will live up to its name.

  • Bobdisqus

    Ed, that is as may be, but even if so it is no impediment to the future. Needs be, we will bring it with us. Next time you take out the trash to that once lifeless dumpster take a whiff (The smell of life). We are quite adept at modifying the local environment to suit our needs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_trilogy).

    I had started to despair that I should ever see the spacefaring future promised in my youth. One man has restored that faith. Elon Musk will be a name remembered as are the greats of the explorers of the new world. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505263_162-57517564/elon-musk-on-mars-its-a-fixer-upper-of-a-planet/

    • Ed Hahnenberg

      Bob…Musk is a visionary who is just plain wacky. Granted, here on planet earth, the countries of Qatar and Kuwait have been trying to increase their domestic agricultural supply through the use of selected types of fungi that enhance the growth of plant roots in arid areas. It took a year and a half to change less than one acre of hyper saline waste land in Qatar’s southern desert area area into a productive habitat where vegetables and grains could now grow. However, on earth, even with such novel experiments, deforestation and desertification are making this planet more and more uninhabitable. Check out some of the sobering facts at http://www.ifad.org/english/desert/facts.htm.

      We need to take care of earth first. If you remember your history, during the great Dust Bowl in the 1930s what happened. The multi-caused event resulted in millions of acres of farmland being blown away, and hundreds of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes.The dust storms of the Mars are the largest in the solar system, capable of blanketing the entire red planet and lasting for months, often blowing at 50-100 mph. No chance for Musk’s ideas to even get off the ground.

      • Bobdisqus

        Hello Ed

        I also have high expectations for here on earth as well. Solar powered atmospheric water generators (Eden machine as the Terra Forming Terra blog likes to call it), bio char, and other new developments will reclaim the Sahel. As for the US southwest where most of the water issues are here I think we can well manage the problems we face.

        US forest land has been fairly stable since about 1910:
        http://www.fia.fs.fed.us/library/brochures/docs/Forest%20Facts%201952-2007%20US%20Metric%20rev072411.pdf

        Access to cheap energy is the key, and it is why we must always fight the nutballs that see mankind as the disease. I welcomed number 7B and hope to live long enough to see number 9B. Just think of it right now there are 7 1 in a billion intellects out there.

        • Ed Hahnenberg

          Bob…Maybe you have watched too many Star Trek episodes…there were 600 episodes. Don’t give up hope, though…there are more on the way. Worm holes, warp speeds, colonizing exoplanets, mining asteroids…all good sci-fi nonsense.

          I don’t know your age, but in 2050, our planet will reach and surpass the 9 billion mark. Let’s see, that would make me over 100. Not going to happen for me.

          • Bobdisqus

            Star Trek (the original) was only something I watched occasionally in reruns, and I can’t say I ever found much interest in its progeny. I was raised by Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke as a child. By far the most influential on me was Heinlein, and later/still Pournelle a Heinlein/Kirk protégé though mainly through his chaos manor blog not his SF. These days I manage a few SF a year, but my diet has long since changed to mostly history.

            I look at the area between the med and high UN projections and I only have to outlive my paternal ancestors by a small amount to get there. I am counting on all the years of Lipitor to give me that slight bump.
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population

          • Bobdisqus

            A couple of good old SF guys talking to the google crowd.

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-PF32jdqkw

    • Ed Hahnenberg

      Bob…How uncanny that you should bring this up. I had just sent my kids an email with the following: “Mom and I are looking for new real estate for the next four years. Mars is rather barren, but if we plant a few trees here and there, we might get the CO2 down. Certainly enough to escape the hot air we’re going to be hearing 24/7.”

  • Ed Hahnenberg

    Skyguide…You are as crazy as Musk.

    • SkyGuide

      “Skyguide…You are as crazy as Musk.”

      Oh? How so?

      • Ed Hahnenberg

        SkyGuide…This so. You didn’t read my reply to Bob? Musk is a visionary who is just plain wacky. Granted, here on planet earth, the countries of Qatar and Kuwait have been trying to increase their domestic agricultural supply through the use of selected types of fungi that enhance the growth of plant roots in arid areas. It took a year and a half to change less than one acre of hyper saline waste land in Qatar’s southern desert area into a productive habitat where vegetables and grains could now grow. However, on earth, even with such novel experiments, deforestation and desertification are making this planet more and more uninhabitable. Check out some of the sobering facts at http://www.ifad.org/english/de….

        We need to take care of earth first. If you remember your history, during the great Dust Bowl in the 1930s what happened. The multi-caused event resulted in millions of acres of farmland being blown away, and hundreds of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes.The dust storms of Mars are the largest in the solar system, capable of blanketing the entire red planet and lasting for months, often blowing at 50-100 mph. No chance for Musk’s ideas to even get off the ground.

    • Bobdisqus
    • Bobdisqus
      • Ed Hahnenberg

        Bob…Elon Musk has quite a life story. I watched a documentary on him a few months back. He has had several failed ventures. He came ridiculously close to losing all of his money. Not a good man to invest your stock with, unless you have a mountain of Tums available. However, he keeps trying to resolve problems with his projects. His best quote, in my opinion, came in a recent interview: “You gotta try hard to do it, and don’t be afraid of failure. You also need to be rooted in reality. It’s easy to get high on your own supply.”

        “Rooted in reality” ….That’s why I see him as wacky in his claim that Mars can become another earth, The dust storms of Mars are the largest in the solar system, capable of blanketing the entire red planet and lasting for months, often blowing at 50-100 mph. If we had those conditions on earth (and we may be getting there with desertification), famine would be the end of the human race.

  • Ed Hahnenberg

    SkyGuide…In your response to my statement that Musk’s ideas won’t get off the ground, you do what so many do. You fail to read the context of what preceded it. I was talking about Musk’s ideas to turn Mars into another earth, not about his SpaceX ventures. Also, Musk’s net worth is about 2 billion. That’s big for one person, but not exactly the kind of cash that it will take even to get to Mars…which, by the way, are filled with so many dangers to those who try to travel there. One scientist has noted that, even though a few could get there, they would have to dig themselves into the ground or take their chances with the surface conditions of that world. Each world would be in a hostile environment. Mar’s atmosphere and gravity are no help; they merely lend a superficial familiarity. Worse, because no sound economic incentive for settlement has been advanced, housing on Mars must be built using tax money and maintained using still more tax money. It has been estimated that the cost of a Mars settlement at $5 trillion, spread over a century. That’s for one settlement. To turn a planet into another earth? Rubbish.

    • Bobdisqus

      5T over a century seems a small price to pay for the human race as a multi-planetary civilization. That is only a bit more than the Obama debt to date and less than what the tab our children will be saddled with by the time he is out of office. The fact we as a one planet civilization are just one big rock from extinction seems enough reason to me.

      Ed I would suggest the persistence of Opportunity suggests that your notions of Martian survivability are slightly pessimistic. Our descendants will be telling stories about the great Martian storms as we do of the dust bowl.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opportunity_rover

      • Ed Hahnenberg

        Bob…Sorry, but if there were a word for Martian lunacy, I’d use it. $5 T is the projected cost for ONE small settlement, not a planet redo. Here’s my musical take on all of this…http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bw4pnQNbBxE

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