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

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:, Phoenix, Space News Examiner

31 Replies to “Perchlorate on Mars Could be Potential Energy Source for Life; Phoenix Team Fires Back at Allegations”

  1. “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

  2. 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 continues to have traces after further digging.

    If we know which Perchlorate compound has been found or whether there are many perchlorate compounds found can reveal whether the source is of earth origin or mars origin.

  3. 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!

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

  5. 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.

  6. 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?

  7. 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.

  8. 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.”

  9. 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?

  10. 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.

  11. ~~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 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.

  12. “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…… where’s that darn monkey!

  13. 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.

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


    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.

  15. 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 prophets. You might as well be reading chicken entrails and hiring a psychic to portent the future…
So please, if we must talk about scientific things, let’s not talk of the mumbo-jumbo of the possible or the probable, but centre on the substantiated fact or observation.

    TD August 4th, 2008 at 10:25 am – it’s really ashame that so many obscene comments have been permitted. It’s also ashame that many of the comments are pointless one-liners, but I suppose there is nothing to be done about that. It’s really hard to explain why people chose this story to become a blogs version of a mob scene. Mankind does have a more uplifted side.

    AJames Says: 
August 4th, 2008 at 10:59 am
The obscenity is more with such an unsubstantiated rumour of gossip like this media-driven story.
The fact is that no amount of hearsay about some presumed story matters a hill of beans unless the information is based on fact and verifiable truth. We might as well be reading stories of Paris Hilton, Lynsay Lohan, or of the exploits of the dear departed Princess Diana before anything in this article matters.
I notice there have been 165,754 view of this page, which shows the state of humanity – when idle speculation clearly rules over common sense. Intelligent life on Earth – makes you surely want to question it, don’t you think?.
Still, I wait for the facts to be announced before I’ll make my comment on the issue. If, as it is likely, this announcement is a lame as I expect, only then I will then state my considered.
(Can’t wait till after the “miraculous” answer that will change my life and history as we know it! I just hope it makes someone smile – because something needs to cheer us up the way things are currently going)


    NOTE: Please scientifically verify results and conclusion BEFORE stating things as either fact or speculation. Else we end upwith egg on everyone’s faces!!

  16. 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
    S traight
    A nswer

  17. 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.

  18. 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 life on Mars?

  19. 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…

  20. @ 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.

  21. “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.”

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

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.


  27. 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:

    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.

  28. 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.

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