The trench known as Snow White on Sol 43 (NASA/JPL/UA)

Perchlorate on Mars Could be Potential Energy Source for Life; Phoenix Team Fires Back at Allegations

5 Aug , 2008 by

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It’s been a busy few days for the Phoenix Mars lander rumour-mill. On Friday, an article was published in Aviation Week reporting an undisclosed source from the NASA team analysing results from the Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer (MECA) had come forward saying Phoenix scientists were in communication with the White House. Apparently there had been new, “provocative” results to come from the MECA, possibly a bigger discovery than last Thursday’s announcement about the scientific proof of water in the Martian regolith. Naturally, the blogosphere went crazy in response to this news. Yesterday, the Phoenix team issued a press release focussing on conflicting results from the MECA and Thermal and Evolved-Gas Analyzer (TEGA) instruments. A MECA sample was found to contain a toxic substance known as perchlorate, usually an oxidizing by-product from industrial processes here on Earth. However, a recently analysed sample from the TEGA turned up no supporting evidence for perchlorate. The study is ongoing. Today, the Phoenix team organized a press conference to discuss a more positive view on the possible discovery of perchlorate, and fired back at recent allegations that science was being withheld from the public…

The Phoenix mission has had an outstanding record of transparency and communicating its science into the public domain. So, one can understand the frustration mission scientists felt when “outrageous” stories (according to Peter Smith, Phoenix principal investigator) were circulated by Aviation Week alleging secrecy about Phoenix findings, strongly indicating that something huge had been discovered and the White House had to be notified. “We want to set the record straight…we’re not with-holding anything” NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown declared at the special press briefing today. The Phoenix team went on to say that the sketchy details in the Aviation Week article led to the huge amount of “speculation” that was thrown around in follow-up stories.

Indeed, there was a significant finding in the works, but the scientists needed more time to analyse the results before issuing a press release on finding perchlorate in the MECA sample. Although the Aviation Week article did specifically say Phoenix was not capable of discovering life, it didn’t stop a number of reports indicating that life had been discovered on the Red Planet (hence the need to communicate the discovery with the President’s Science Advisor first). These speculative claims reached fever-pitch, prompting Phoenix’s Twitter feed to state “Heard about the recent news reports implying I may have found Martian life. Those reports are incorrect.” The speed at which these rumours spread was startling and probably took NASA completely off-guard. This is probably why the perchlorate discovery was announced before a complete and rigorous study could be carried out.

So is perchlorate the death-nail for the possibility of finding suitable conditions for life to be seeded? According to Phoenix scientists, oxidizing chemicals are not always ‘bad news’ for life. “It does not preclude life on Mars. In fact it is a potential energy source,” said William Boynton of the University of Arizona. Indeed, perchlorates have been found in Chile’s highly arid Atacama Desert, a location often used as an analogue for the Martian landscape. Organics in nitrate deposits associated with perchlorates have been found in these harsh conditions, possibly indicating life may form in similar circumstances on Mars.

Although the Phoenix scientists are fairly upbeat about this new finding, other scientists not associated with the mission are cautious. At first glance, perchlorate “is a reactive compound. It’s not usually considered an ingredient for life,” said Brown University geologist John Mustard. Regardless, we will have to wait until all the results are in, especially from the follow-up TEGA sample. Jumping to conclusions are obviously not very helpful to the Phoenix team currently trying to decipher what they are seeing from experiments being carried out by a robot, 400 million miles away.

Sources: Space.com, Phoenix, Space News Examiner


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vagueofgodalming
Member
August 6, 2008 1:34 AM

Is that ‘alligators’ or ‘allegations’?

Hans-Peter Dollhopf
Member
Hans-Peter Dollhopf
August 6, 2008 12:09 AM

“Naturally, the blogosphere went crazy in response to this news.”

When all are one and one is all
To be a blog and not to fool
Woe oh oh oh oh oh

Essel
Member
Essel
August 6, 2008 3:33 AM
While the mission is already successful and has tremendous potential for further discoveries, one of the fundamental problem with Phoenix mission relate to the fact that it sits over the very surface over which it fired retro-rockets. People may say that the retro rockets were probably 100% Hydrazine (N2H4) but the process by which it is manufactured utilizes sodium hypochlorite (NaOCl). Certain impurities or post burning reaction with the mars regolith/atmosphere can always leave traces of Sodium Perchlorate (NaClO4) or any other Perchlorate compounds. Moreover knowing the highly sticky nature of the mars regolith it is very much possible that the robotic arm picked up this contamination during the very first drills over retro rocket contaminated surface and… Read more »
DavidM
Guest
DavidM
August 6, 2008 4:26 AM

Essel – very well observed.

I hope, and I’m sure that NASA will have considered the contamination issue. After the hullabaloo over this finding, it would be an embarrasing turn of events if Phoenix had been analysing its own exhauset fumes!

Dutch Delight
Guest
Dutch Delight
August 6, 2008 4:41 AM

It’s not really hard to test the same thrusters and analyze the residue here on earth.

Laszlo Borbely
Guest
Laszlo Borbely
August 6, 2008 5:56 AM

Perchlorates certainly are used in rocketry and fireworks, esp military. Another compound Na-O2-Cl can deliver oxygen into organisms & is metastable, esp at cold Mars temps. The oxygen’s released within the warm body, hopefully deep into the intestinal track or tissues. Strange they found only the most saturated perchlorate, and no other chlorates, esp since the oxygen isn’t ubiquitous in Mar’s atmos.

Jorge
Guest
August 6, 2008 6:34 AM

Having chemistry as my major “blind spot”, so to speak, I am curious about one thing:

I guess photochemical reactions might, eventually, decompose some atmospheric CO2 making oxygen atoms available for reaction with whatever more reactive substances that might be found in the atmosphere or in the upper layers of the soil. There is the possibility that the soil includes plenty of salt, from the martian liquid past. Couldn’t the perchlorates form through this method? Couldn’t it have been slowly piling up over the dry ages of Mars? And wouldn’t that tell us basicly nothing about past habitability?

tom
Guest
tom
August 6, 2008 7:03 AM

I attended a presentation at the American Chemical Soiety conference 2 years ago here in Atlanta when a gentleman from the University of Nevada presented a mechanism for perchlorate formation from chloride. The title of the presentation was “Photooxidation of chloride to perchlorate in the presence of desert soils and titanium dioxide” His paper focused on the possibility that soils with high natural chloride content could have a portion of the chloride oxidized by sunlight or UV light to perchlorate. He was able to reproduce this mechanism in the lab using soils from Death Valley.

http://oasys2.confex.com/acs/231nm/techprogram/P945888.HTM
http://www.unr.edu/idgrad/esh/faculty/gmiller.asp

gwhitton
Member
gwhitton
August 6, 2008 10:59 AM

Ahhhhhhhh! The blogosphere strikes again.

joe
Guest
joe
August 6, 2008 11:18 AM

What they *should* be holding back is their unprofessional speculation on preliminary data !!!

I’ve said it before here: This project seems to have a problem of shooting their mouths off, then having to eat their words. This is like the third time!!!

They should take a lesson from Jack Webb: “Just the facts, ma’am.”

Ron Leflore
Guest
Ron Leflore
August 6, 2008 11:45 AM

Simply waste of energy, resource, time and money.

Alright! What if there is/was life on Mars?
We are not alone… hum! Big F*king Deal!

Are we going to rush two more dozen missions? Is that it?

gwhitton
Member
gwhitton
August 6, 2008 12:25 PM

Ron,

It would make the Universe a whole new ball game. Especially if we find it on the very first planet we believe has a reasonable chance of possessing it.

This would fuel the drive and progress of mankind for the next 1000 years, especially if we found a way over the massive barrier in our way the naggingly slow speed of light.

Eric Near Buffalo
Guest
Eric Near Buffalo
August 6, 2008 12:31 PM
~~Ron Leflore Says: August 6th, 2008 at 11:45 am Simply waste of energy, resource, time and money. Alright! What if there is/was life on Mars? We are not alone… hum! Big F*king Deal! Are we going to rush two more dozen missions? Is that it?~~ There’s alot more to it than “hey we found it. k, what’s next?” A discovery like that has enormous implications on not just science, but on society. I hate to make a remotely religious tie-in to this, but many people under a certain religious group believe that the Earth was created on it’s own and is the only known planet to harbor life. For life to be discovered on another planet would invoke… Read more »
fred
Guest
fred
August 6, 2008 12:36 PM

“ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS” 1964 Film.

The main character of the movie finds he can burn yellow rocks that have their own oxygen source, “like solid rocket fuel”.

Interesting……..now where’s that darn monkey!

YOGIH
Guest
YOGIH
August 6, 2008 12:57 PM

if NASA is keen to proove they have nothing to hide/keep from public than they should post all the photos and analyzer diagrams or other test results without delay on their site, available to the entire world, before even a proper examination from their side. Maybe other scientists at the other end of the Earth will be more fast in making a good interpretation/reading of the results and things will get a shape in weeks or months, not in years.

Frank Glover
Guest
Frank Glover
August 6, 2008 2:12 PM

“Wonder why we never went back to the moon for 40 years”

Money.

NASA can’t do what Cogress won’t authorize the funding for. There are no votes in something the public lost interest in, espically when an unpopular war was going on.

Remember, we cancelled the last three missions, even thoug the hardware already existed. They’re lawn displays now, at KSC and JSC.

The same reason a great many other things do or don’t happen. Money.

Andrew James
Member
August 6, 2008 2:23 PM
I said the following in the announcement before this result was released. (Now NASA and the Media.) This same still holds even after the event; AJames Says: 
August 2nd, 2008 at 11:56 am Just another story relating to the speculations of the irresponsible tabloid American media – doing anything to gain some notoriety or some pre-emptive fame. i always thought the media should be presenting the news and not being the story itself – especially science media. Any scientist should always present the facts to draw conclusions, and announce the outcome if necessary. Wanting to forewarn of scientific breakthroughs gives science just a bad name – the same as the astrologers, faith healers, the charlatans, and the self-professed… Read more »
s0l
Guest
s0l
August 6, 2008 2:29 PM

Energy source? How? Like light in photoynthesis? Like NPK fertilizer?

Organics in Chile? Molecules, material?

This is so vague it’s as if they had’nt said anything.

sad but true? :

NASA =

N ever
A
S traight
A nswer

Jorge
Guest
August 6, 2008 2:53 PM

Energy source? How? Like light in photoynthesis? Like NPK fertilizer?

Like oxygen in metabolism. Those molecules are oxidizers and that means they can, theoretically, replace oxygen in oxidation reactions. Not the same reactions we have in our bodies, of course, but analogues in a different biological path.

It’s a speculative possibility, though.

mitch
Guest
mitch
August 6, 2008 3:19 PM
I have deep regards for the scientists working at NASA and JPL. However, the suits who run these instiutions take their orders and get their fundings from the Government. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out NASA and JPL are keeping information from the public. Obviously, something very interesting was discovered on Mars and they did their best to pull the plug on it. The ramifications of finding any type of life on Mars would be enormous not only on a theological level, but, also to other countries determined to take the lead in space exploration. So, is there any wonder why NASA and JPL all of a sudden are squashing any idea of… Read more »
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