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

by Ian O'Neill on August 5, 2008

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

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


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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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

Dave August 6, 2008 at 5:38 PM

Alas, in our “Wally-World” culture, “doesn’t matter if it works as long as it looks good”… Drama equals funding… The public use of the internet reminds me of the “CB days” where it became impossible to seperate the trash from the hash…

SPS from Pune August 6, 2008 at 10:57 PM

@ Eric Near Buffalo
Eric just to correct you, Religion never advocates that earth is the only planet having life; infact religion believes that there are many (in fact million) place where life is present. Religion considers science as another religion (path), wherein the methodology is different. You observe first then try to explain the observed phenomenon via some theory. Traditional religions believes in having faith on the One God and then once you achieve full faith, you come to know the truth and you are enlightened about all the facts by merging with God. Both of these stream are repeatable, I have seen some old religious scriptures where there is a mention of person visiting the other star system by concentrating on Lord and visiting other life forms ( other then human beings). Religion is individualistic is nature, i.e. to say, the one who practice only get the fruit, though he can always talk about his experience. Science benefits entire race. If one finds some thing, it affects everyone directly or indirectly.

Tyler Durden August 6, 2008 at 11:55 PM

“For life to be discovered on another planet would invoke cries of heresy and maybe even send people into fits thinking that their could possibly be further advanced civilizations out there that could pose a threat to our way of life and planet in general. Not so cut and dry as sending a few more probes and mechanical prospectors to Mars.”

Perhaps in anticipation of such findings, the Pope recently made a statement condoning belief in extraterrestrial life. He basically said that the existence of ETs would not invalidate Biblical teachings of man as favored creation. But that aliens would simply be separately created beings, perhaps even the historical “angels.”

Dipankar Bera August 7, 2008 at 12:31 AM

If it is found that both water & perclorate are present in Mars may be perclorate is helpful for them if there is any life.

Eric Near Buffalo August 7, 2008 at 6:53 AM

Would it help out if I clarified that when I said many people in a certain religious group, I was referring to the people who have extreme beliefs that all we know that exists is all that was ever created? Trust me, after going to a private Catholic school from Kindergarten thru the 8th grade, I received plenty ‘o tongue lashings from religion teachers, who incedentally were also nuns, when I posed the simple question “Are we the only things in the universe?” The answer to that one was “No, God created the animals too.” To that I answered back “No, I mean in the universe.” That’s when I received my first real taste of close mindedness, as I look back on it, because that nun unleashed the biggest and most evil sounding rant about how God only created the Earth with life and everything else was empty and to believe or think otherwise would be a sin. They had called my parents in at one point to find out what they allowed me to watch on t.v. and to admonish them for letting me even think of such “outlandish” things. So do not correct me, SPS From Pune.

Rafael August 7, 2008 at 7:45 AM

Essel wrote:
“…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.”

This is so true, and a shame to spend so much $ only to sample contaminated soil. Meteorological experiments or imaging the surrounding terrain are fine for stationary landers, but sampling material on the ground require a pristine location. Missions with roving capability would always be preferable but costs make them prohibitive. Maybe NASA can consider an intermediary method where the lander shifts, rolls or a leaps short distance to another spot after landing. Just a thought.

Ray Bingham August 7, 2008 at 9:57 AM

Perchlorates in the soil. So that only proves that the ancient Martians had laundries and were not sufficiently concerned about keeping the ground clean. Just like us.

Stephen August 8, 2008 at 12:34 AM

why don’t they just plant one of those tomato seeds that have been known to germinate in colder temperatures and poor salty soil conditions and water it and see what happens? after all perchlorates are suppose to be highly soluble.

:-)

S August 8, 2008 at 9:26 AM

Contaminating Mars with rocket exhaust is just one potential way we’ve corrupted results. Life is likely on mars already and we put it there. Here’s an article about just one recent occurance: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/article544976.ece

This was just one recent detected instance, there have been many more, especially with earlier exploration spacecraft. In particular, the early Russian Mars explorers went through very poor or no sterilization procedures and likely hauled a variety of bacterial life to Mars. In the estimation of many in the scientific community, Mars has already been seeded with a variety of Bacteria. So I wouldn’t be surprised at all if bacteria are discovered thriving at some point in the future. There are plenty of resources for them to live there and many easily survived the vacuum of space to arrive there. After all, we found living Bacteria on the moon that we put there years before via contaminated spacecraft and the moon doesn’t even have an atmosphere.

Ancient Alien August 8, 2008 at 11:38 AM

All NASA had to do was sterilize the exaust particles of the Phoenix lander before they hit Martian surface .
A laser rocket engine maybe instead of chemical.

alan August 11, 2008 at 10:59 AM

Laser Rocket? Still havent seen one of those yet, mabye you need to live in reality….

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