Martian Bombshell?


There’s a palpable buzz at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that something wonderful is about to happen.

Evidence that suggests Mars was once a water-rich world is mounting as scientists scrutinize data from the Opportunity rover, at work in a small crater at Meridiani Planum.

That information may well be leading to a biological bombshell — a finding that the Red Planet has been – and could be now – an extraterrestrial home for life.

Space scientists plan to make a “significant” announcement Tuesday at a NASA press briefing to be aired on NASA TV at 2 p.m. EST. Some speculate they will announced new evidence Mars was a wet and warm planet, capable of sustaining microscopic life.

The rovers Spirit and Opportunity, working on opposite sides of the planet, have returned data from soil and rock samples that leave open the possibility that Mars once was warmer and wetter. Opportunity has been studying an outcropping of layered rock close to its landing site in a small crater on an area of Mars called Meridiani Planum.

The six-wheel robot has been using microscopic photography, a rock-abrasion tool that grinds off surface layers and spectrometers to determine the composition of the outcropping, particularly a piece dubbed “El Capitan.”

While Opportunity has stayed close to its landing site to explore the outcropping, its twin rover, Spirit, has been traveling on the other side of the planet, studying rocks and soil en route to a big crater named “Bonneville” that scientists hope will give the rover a view of geology below the surface.

NASA has scheduled the news conference for Tuesday at 2 p.m. EST (1900 GMT) from agency headquarters in Washington. The event will be carried live on NASA Television. Panelists include:

  • Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for space science, will make opening remarks. The news conference panelists include:
  • Professor Steve Squyres, Mars Exploration Rover principal investigator from Cornell University
  • Professor John Grotzinger, rover science team geologist from Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Benton C. Clark III, rover science team member and chief scientist of space exploration at Lockheed Martin Space Systems
  • Joy Crisp, rover project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • Jim Garvin, NASA’s lead scientist for Mars and the Moon

The team has cut back transmission of data from the Spirit rover from three times per day to two, and they have begun to rely more heavily on a UHF antenna, which uses about a third of the wattage of the faster high-gain antenna, Cook said. Spirit is midway between its lander and an impact crater that scientists nicknamed Bonneville, and is testing the composition of nearby soil and rocks to learn whether they were ejected from deep inside the crater.

As of Feb. 18, the two rovers have sent 10 Gigabits of data from Mars to Earth. Only 18 percent of that data was transmitted directly to Earth; the rest was sent through the Mars Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor relays. NASA says hits to the Mars rover websites have recently topped 6.53 billion, greater than the population of the Earth.

Astrobiology Magazine features The Martian Cronciles, a multipart series, showing the inside story of the Mars mission. Portland State University’s Sherry Cady (left), an Astrobiologist in Portland, edits the more academic Astrobiology Journal.

After living in the dirt of Mars, a pathogen could see our bodies as a comparable host,” says John Rummel, Planetary Protection Officer for Earth. John Barros thinks extraterrestials should go to the University of Washington for Astrobiology study.

In 2011 NASA plans to bring Martian soil back to Earth. The International Committee Against Mars Sample Return (ICAMSR) wants to stop it. The Mars Exobiology strategy is being executed with the help of Planetary Protection Officer for Mars, Bill Horsley, who must prevent contamination between Earth and Mars. It’s not immediately clear who resolves jurisdictional disputes between Planetary and Solar System Protection Officers.

Related Dailywireless articles include Spirit Telecommunications, Beagle 2 systems, Spirit is Willing, The Mission to Mars, the 1999 Mission to Mars, Spirit In Dirt, Good News from Mars, and Telepresence Now!.

Additional web resources include Google, Astrobiology, Mars Rover Images, Mars Today, Space.com, Spaceflight Now, The Planetary Society, Discovery, The BBC, Nasa homepage, Welcome to the Nasa Web, Nasa Watch (not a Nasa site), Houston Space Chronicle, Encyclopedia Astronautica, Nasa Human Spaceflight (shuttle homepage), Kennedy Space Center, Mars Global Surveyor, Galileo: journey to Jupiter, European Space Agency, United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, British National Space Centre, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), and Space Ref.

UPDATE: Here it is:

Mars was once soaked with water, enough to support life in a “good, habitable environment,” NASA scientists said today after reviewing data from the Mars rover Opportunity, although they said the finding doesn’t prove that life existed.

“Opportunity has landed in an area of Mars where liquid water once drenched the surface,” said Edward Weiler, associate NASA administrator for space science, at a news conference. “This area would have been a good, habitable environment.”

A study of a fine, layered rock by the rover detected evidence of sulfates and other minerals that form in the presence of water. The finding does suggest that if there had been life present when the rocks were formed, then the living conditions could have permitted an organism to flourish. The study, however, has found no direct evidence of living organisms.

“The ground would have been suitable for life,” said Steve Squyres, lead investigator for science instruments on Opportunity. “That doesn’t mean life was there. We don’t know that.”

Posted by Sam Churchill on .

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