Mars as it actually looks without NASA enhancement
Marsnow. info


Help Wanted:

Principal Spacecraft Systems Engineer- Exo Mars Rover

Airbus Defence & Space Stevenage (ex Astrium SL)

Airbus group is a global leader in aerospace, defence and related services. In 2013, the Group - comprising Airbus, Airbus Defence and Space and Airbus Helicopters – generated revenues of € 59.3 billion and employed a workforce of around 144,000.

(The legal name change from European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company EADS N.V. ("EADS N.V.") to Airbus Group N.V. is subject to the approval of the Annual General Meeting).

Description of the job

A vacancy for a Principal Spacecraft Systems Engineer has arisen within Airbus Defence & Space in Stevenage.
As the successful applicant you will support the system engineering managers with a target focused on Exo Mars Rover to module interfaces.
The successful candidate will be subject to UK National Security Clearance in order to undertake related work in accordance with business needs.

Tasks & accountabilities

Your main tasks and responsibilities will include:

  • Requirements management and change impact analysis, including verification planning and tracking.
  • Technical resource and performance budget management including some underlying analyses.
  • System level Trade-offs including both technical and programmatic factors, including costs.
  • Interface management.
  • Identifying dedicated analyses needs to ensure full engineering coverage to meet the requirements, formulating plans for approval and executing them within the team.
  • Preparing progress reports of work performed, in both Word and PowerPoint styles.
  • Presenting and communicating complex technical problems and solution approach to internal and external parties.
  • Review of subcontractor documentation including design reports, analyses, trade-offs, technical budgets, interface requirements and designs etc, including raising and co-ordination of RIDs at design reviews.
  • Co-ordinating multi-author documentation as book captain, including datapack generation planning and tracking.
  • Generating own documentation including responsibility to progress through signature loop.
  • Answering relevant customer RIDs at design reviews of Astrium work.
  • Chairing and secretary tasks of meetings as required.
  • Work package management.
  • Work area management and associated planning and reporting.
    • Educated to first degree level (or equivalent) in Engineering, Science, Physics or related topic.
    • A proven experience in system engineering and in space engineering is mandatory
    • Understanding of EMC, Cleanliness and electrical/mechanical interface would be appreciated.
    • Experience in and understanding of requirements engineering in DOORS.
    • Know-how project management processes (meeting management, change management, action tracking) is mandatory for the position.
    • PC literacy is required
    • A fluent level in English is mandatory.

This role will involve some travel for business and as such you must be able to travel accordingly.

Required skills

We are looking for candidates with the following skills and experience:

  • Educated to first degree level (or equivalent) in Engineering, Science, Physics or related topic.
  • A proven experience in system engineering and in space engineering is mandatory
  • Understanding of EMC, Cleanliness and electrical/mechanical interface would be appreciated.
  • Experience in and understanding of requirements engineering in DOORS.
  • Know-how project management processes (meeting management, change management, action tracking) is mandatory for the position.
  • PC literacy is required
  • A fluent level in English is mandatory.


More Methane musings

Methane in meteorites shows Mars soil could support life, study indicates

Direct evidence for life on Mars may remain as elusive as ever, but if something is living there, it is probably lurking beneath the surface, according to scientists.


A study has found that martian meteorites contain pockets of methane gas, hinting that methane-eating microbes might be able to thrive in the planet’s soil in a “deep biosphere similar to that on Earth”.


Nigel Blamey, who led the research at Brock University in Ontario, said: “We must be clear that we have not detected life. However, if life exists on Mars, then we should be focusing on the subsurface.”


Last year, Nasa’s Mars Curiosity rover observed “wafts” of methane coming from beneath the planet’s Gale Crater, suggesting that the gas is still being produced on the planet today.


The surface of Mars, which is bombarded by radiation and where temperatures plummet to -90C, is known to be extremely hostile to life. The latest findings suggest that conditions beneath the surface could be more favourable – at least for microbes like those found in some extreme environments on Earth, which use methane to respire instead of oxygen.


The bacteria, which thrive in methane-rich sludge at the bottoms of rivers and lakes, can live in oxygen-free environments that would be toxic to most other life.


Professor Monica Grady, a planetary scientist at the Open University, said: “If true, the results indicates that the martian subsurface could be capable of supporting life.”


However, she added that scientists remained divided about the significance of methane on Mars. On Earth, much of the methane in the atmosphere is produced by life, including both microbes, known as methanogens, and animals. An alternative hypothesis would be that methane in the meteorites could have been produced by microbes more than a billion years ago at a time when liquid water flowed across the surface of the red planet. “Some microbes produce methane, some microbes eat methane, so we can’t be sure,” said Grady.


The six meteorites, taken from various museum collections, are the result of asteroid collisions with Mars millions of years ago. When the asteroids hit the planet, they blasted off pieces of surface, some of which made it to Earth as meteorites.


When the scientists crushed samples weighing around one-quarter of a gram, taken from the interior of each of the meteorites, all of them released methane gas, which the scientists believe is probably held in small pockets between grains in the minerals.


The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, showed that the most pristine of the meteorites contained the highest methane concentrations, suggesting that the gas had not simply been introduced as the samples degraded on Earth. Tests of two non-martian meteorites also found far lower methane concentrations.


Professor Andrew Coates, a planetary scientist at University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, said: “The most likely type of life on Mars was primitive forms emerging 3.8 billion years ago, when Mars was very different to now, with water on the surface, a thick atmosphere and a magnetic field. At the same time primitive life was emerging on Earth.”


The European Space Agency’s planned ExoMars mission may provide more answers when it drills up to two metres beneath the surface after its arrival in 2019, he predicted.

Earth oceans burned away about 3.8 Ga



Although lunar studies suggest that large asteroid impact rates in the inner solar system declined to their present low levels at 3.8–3.7 Ga, recent studies in greenstone belts indicate that asteroids 20 km to 70+ km in diameter were still striking the Earth as late as 3.2 Ga at rates significantly greater than the values estimated from lunar studies. We here present geologic evidence that two of these terrestrial impacts, at 3.29 Ga and 3.23 Ga, caused heating of Earth's atmosphere, ocean-surface boiling, and evaporation of tens of meters to perhaps 100 m of seawater. Rapid ocean evaporation resulted in abrupt sea-level drops, erosion of the exposed sea floor, and precipitation of distinctive layers of laminated silica representing marine siliceous sinter. Such events would have severely affected microbial communities, especially among shallow-water and photosynthetic organisms. These large impacts profoundly affected Archean crustal development, surface environment, and biological evolution until 3.2 Ga, or even later.

Geologic record of partial ocean evaporation triggered by giant asteroid impacts, 3.29–3.23 billion years ago

Donald R. Lowe1 and Gary R. Byerly2

+ Author Affiliations


1Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305, USA

2Department of Geology and Geophysics, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70803, USA


The dark future of American space exploration

NASA's golden age is about to come to a thudding halt

by David W. Brown on February 23, 2015



One by one they flickered to life. Venus, first, in 1962, and two and a half years later, Mars. Our spacecraft flew by those planets, orbited them, and became manmade meteors streaking toward the first soil we couldn’t generically call "earth." Later, when we grew ambitious and confident in our abilities, humanity reached for the outer planets, probing Jupiter and Saturn in 1973 and 1979. Each mission turned conjecture into fact, invalidated old assumptions, and brought us closer to one day answering the two fundamental questions of existence: where did all this come from, and where is it headed?

Mission successes don't happen in a void. For every newly lighted world there are crashed probes, lost spacecraft, and rockets destroyed on launch pads. The exploration of other worlds is a cumulative art, and with a steady cadence of missions comes an institutional knowledge for scientists and engineers. Every setback is its own library of insights. In 1964, when probe Mariner 3 missed Mars, its target, due to equipment failure, Mariner 4 was three weeks behind, and succeeded where its twin had failed.

The cadence cannot be interrupted, which is why many planetary scientists now eye warily their calendars. America's starvation budget for planetary exploration has stopped good missions from going forward, and keeps new missions from reaching the launch pad. One by one over the next three years, as missions end and spacecraft die, the outer planets will again go dark.

More on space exploration

Scientists think there could be life on Jupiter's moon Europa. Here's why.

If NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto is extended beyond 2017, the entire active human presence at the outer planets will consist of a single probe the size of a grand piano. If the mission is not extended, humanity's 43-year exploration of the outer planets will end, and humanity's horizon will shrink by about 2.5 billion miles. Worse, because of the time necessary to build a spacecraft and the harsh reality of orbital mechanics, the earliest a new mission could be sent beyond the asteroid belt is sometime in the 2020s.

The consequences of a diminished planetary science portfolio go beyond the loss of new wallpaper for desktop computers. Planetary exploration has changed the way we think about everything from the air we breathe to the oceans we sail. By exploring Venus, for example, scientists observed the full expression of the greenhouse effect, which in turn reshaped environmental priorities back on Earth. Meanwhile, the search for life on other planets inspired scientists to find life in unexpected places here at home.

"The more we learn about the other planets out there, the more we learn about Earth," said Dr. Curt Niebur, a program scientist for NASA.

The next three years of outer space exploration are going to produce spectacular scientific data. Very little is known about Pluto, for example, but that will change in July when New Horizons makes its approach. Once New Horizons completes its possible extended mission to an object in the Kuiper Belt, though, there is nothing budgeted in the pipeline to take its place. Yesterday invested in today. But we are not investing in tomorrow.

The value of planetary exploration

For all the scientific breakthroughs it produces, the space program in general — and planetary exploration in particular — is an inexpensive enterprise. "People grossly overestimate the budget that NASA gets," said Niebur. The president's fiscal year 2016 budget calls for $18.5 billion overall for NASA — 0.46 percent of the federal budget. "Most people think it's 10 times that much."

Of that, the allotment for planetary science has been cut to $1.36 billion — the fourth such proposed cut by the Obama administration, and far short of what is needed by the program. (The rest of NASA's budget goes to earth science, human space exploration, and operation of the International Space Station, among other things.) According to the Planetary Society, a nonprofit space research and advocacy organization, for the planetary science division to run well, the United States should spend at least $1.5 billion every year to explore other worlds — "less overall," they report, "than what Americans spent on dog toys in 2012."

Planetary exploration has changed the way we think about the air we breathe and the oceans we sail

Fiscal year 2013 saw the White House's Office of Management and Budget call for slashing planetary science funding by one-fifth. Though Congress restored much of the money, the program has yet to fully recover, and with the doleful figures in the 2016 budget, it is again up to Congress to find money to keep the program funded.

In that regard, planetary science is at a disadvantage compared to other federal programs. During the budget standoff in 2013, for example, national parks were closed, which prompted an immediate backlash from the public. But because it generally takes several years for spacecraft to reach the outer planets, they are already funded by the time they start returning data. In other words, the ticket is purchased before the flight arrives at its destination. As such, from the public's point of view, the planetary science program will seem stronger than ever, returning spectacular images of alien worlds, while in fact the program is hobbling along, ill-prepared for the future due to consecutive years of reduced budgets.

Missions can take decades to see through to completion. In 2014, the European Space Agency landed a robot on a comet. It was the culmination of a very long project. When the mission, called Rosetta, was first approved in 1994, new computers came installed with Microsoft Windows 3.1. It then took a decade to plan the mission and design and build the spacecraft and lander. Facebook was less than a month old when the spacecraft launched in 2004, and another decade would elapse before it arrived at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. When the Philae lander made contact with the comet, the mission had been in progress for 21 years, not including the years of research that preceded its approval.

Cassini-Huygens, NASA's ongoing flagship mission to Saturn, was launched in 1997New Horizons was approved in 2001 and launched in 2006. It will arrive at Pluto in July 2015. Juno, which is set to orbit Jupiter for a year starting in 2016, was launched in 2011. Such lengthy timelines mean that planetary exploration is largely incompatible with jarring starts and stops. A steady launch/arrival tempo must be sustained; as one spacecraft is returning science, another should be en route to another celestial body. An interruption in the cadence means that the clock is reset.

Niebur said there are two major consequences to cutting the outer planet exploration budget. "First, we stop making new discoveries," he said. "The pace of the scientific research and scientific discoveries slows down." More importantly, perhaps, is that the scientists working on these missions only get older, and absent active missions they retire or find work in the private sector. Meanwhile, without ongoing missions, it gets harder to attract young scientists into the field. "The field slowly begins dying," said Niebur. "You start losing a lot of the knowledge that we've built up. And then when you finally do decide to begin missions again, you've got to spend the resources to rebuild that knowledge."

A new field, vulnerable to attack

The exploration of other worlds began in 1962 with the launch of the Mariner 2 space probe to Venus. Modern planetary science is a relatively new field, and resides at the intersection of multiple scientific disciplines to include astronomy, geology, oceanography, and atmospheric science, among others. Historically, it has lacked the political and cultural influence of astronomy or astrophysics. Because of this, it has remained particularly susceptible to cuts and even cancellation.

More on space exploration

For NASA, sending a person to Mars is simple. Dealing with Congress is hard.

That almost happened in 1981, when the White House proposed slashing NASA's budget. The Reagan administration attempted to defund Galileo, the storied spacecraft that would eventually study the Jovian system. It also considered eliminating the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the agency's research and development center. The White House stopped taking calls from James Beggs, NASA's administrator at the time. A position paper issued by the Office of Management and Budget noted, "OMB staff believe that lower priority programs such as planetary exploration must be curtailed — even if they have been successful in the past." George Keyworth, Reagan's science advisor, told the White House budget review board "the cut in planetary exploration represents an example of good management." Galileo was only saved at the last minute when Howard Baker, the Republican Senate Majority Leader, personally intervened, reaching out to the White House in support of the mission, eventually brokering a compromise to keep the planetary science alive.

The situation then was much more perilous than it is today. Planetary science is presently bolstered by its maturation over time as a field of study, and by its demonstrable successes. While NASA's human exploration program retools for the exploration of Mars (or the moon, or an asteroid, depending on the whims of whomever is elected president), the robotic program is garnering impressive headlines. The landing of Curiosity on Mars, for example, must surely rank as an engineering wonder of not one but two worlds. New Horizons's flyby of Pluto is likely to be one of the biggest stories of 2015, and part of science textbooks forever.

"It serves as reminder of what planetary exploration can do for the image of NASA and the public consciousness of NASA," said Casey Dreier, the advocacy director of the Planetary Society. "[The European Space Agency's] Rosetta was a great antidote for the dismal other news that was happening in the world at the end 2014. We had all this nasty stuff with ISIS and terrorists and international politics with an aggressive Russia, but here you have suddenly, oh yeah, look at this: here's a robot landing on a comet for the first time. This is what humanity can do as an expression of pure curiosity. It was an unambiguous reminder that we're not all bad."

Still, the Obama White House has been particularly uncompromising about cutting the budget for solar system exploration. In 2013, the Office of Management and Budget proposed cuttingplanetary science, specifically, by 21 percent, to $1.19 billion. The following year it proposed a budget of $1.22 billion, and in fiscal year 2015, it wanted $1.28 billion — each far below the $1.5 billion dog toy standard. The proposed cuts in 2015 went beyond belt-tightening, removing funding for NASA to operate the Mars rover Opportunity and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is currently circling the moon. (The president's proposed 2016 budget again attempts to kill Opportunity and the orbiter.) In each case, Congress found ways to reinsert much of the lost funding. Without the institutional support of the White House, however, NASA cannot count on the money materializing each year. The space agency cannot make five-year contracts and simply hope that Congress appropriates the money.

Our Magellan

In times of budgetary uncertainty, NASA is forced to proceed with only the most reliable mission proposals. This means a lot of thrilling plans to explore other worlds fall by the wayside. The most notable of these, perhaps, was the Titan Mare Explorer. TiME, as it was called, was a low-cost mission proposal in 2009 to send a spacecraft to Titan, one of Saturn's moons. The spacecraft was also a boat, and would have splashed down onto one of Titan's lakes. There, it would have sailed around, analyzing the chemistry of the sea and the makeup of the air above it. It would have taken photographs of the lake and its waves. It would have even had a microphone to hear Titan's waves lapping against its side. The very idea of such a mission outpaces the fever dreams of science fiction. Sadly, lacking funding, the mission never left PowerPoint, and the launch window is now closed. (A successor mission — this time using a submarine — has since been proposed.)

Another mission that didn't survive the proposal stage was the Europa Jupiter Science Mission-Laplace, a joint mission with the European Space Agency. NASA would send a probe to Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, and the European Space Agency would send a probe to Ganymede, another moon of Jupiter. Having two highly capable spacecraft in the same place at the same time would have greatly improved the quality of data produced because of the addition of interactive analysis systems. NASA pulled out of the mission in 2011 for budgetary reasons.

"The field slowly begins dying. You start losing a lot of the knowledge that we've built up."


The European Space Agency has vowed to carry on with its side of the deal, and has since reorganized its Ganymede mission as the Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer — the unfortunately abbreviated JUICE. Set to launch in 2022 and arrive at Jupiter in 2030, JUICE will examine Ganymede's magnetic field (it is the only moon in the solar system to have one) as well as its topography, oceans, and atmosphere.

Because of starvation budgets, it is nearly impossible to get a mission onto the launch pad and into space, though with seemingly superhuman perseverance it can be done. Consider the New Horizons mission to Pluto, humanity's last great hope to maintain an active presence in the outer planets from 2017 until a planned mission to Europa is underway. Dr. Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission and former associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, first conceived of a Pluto mission in the late 1980's. New Horizons was the sixth Pluto mission of which he was a part. The previous five were canceled before being realized.

"The timescale and the cost and the complexity all end up on the ‘hard' side of easy-to-hard to do outer planet missions," he said. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, each of the Pluto missions that NASA studied grew in cost to the point that the agency felt they were untenable. "There was only so much desire and so much budget, and when it got out of control on budget there wasn't enough desire to stomach the cost increases. So they put their pencils down. And then the scientific community would come back and say, ‘We really want this mission. Try it again. Let's think of a different approach.'"

The Pluto mission was thus opened up to any organization that wanted to make a proposal, with NASA choosing the most promising entry. Stern's team won the competition in 2001. "I was convinced as the project leader that if we ever got out of control on cost that we would be canceled as well. So I made sure we stayed in the [cost] box, which we did. And one of the breakthroughs of New Horizons is that it is a much lower-cost outer-planets mission than any in a long time. In fact, if you compare it to Voyager, its cost is about two dimes on the dollar. Twenty percent as much."

But even using the long timelines that characterize the exploration of the outer solar system, Stern and his team worked a long time — 14 years — to see New Horizons through from a concept to takeoff. "Persistence is something that we talk a lot about at New Horizons. We feel— and did from the beginning — that we were kind of the stewards of this. I felt a lot like this was probably the last chance."

As a result of the work and doggedness of the New Horizons team, the first probe to each planet in the solar system will have been launched by the United States. Such firsts transcend even the exciting research that results from a robust planetary exploration program, and will feature in classrooms for centuries to come. "In our own time it very much exemplifies best in our country to people of other countries," Stern said. "We do this with our dollars but we share the knowledge with all mankind. And even in foreign countries that don't get along with the United States, kids still learn about the exploration of planets and they know that the United States did it without having to be told. The names of programs like Apollo and Voyager are in textbooks in every language."

All these worlds are yours except Europa?

If humanity has a future in the outer planets, it is on Europa. For the second time running, the Decadal Survey, which represents a scientific consensus concerning the most pressing goals for planetary exploration, has recommended a Europa mission. (The most recent survey gave slightly higher priority to a Mars sample retrieval mission). In December's continuing resolution to fund the government, Congress specifically earmarked $100 million to study a possible Europa mission, and the proposed fiscal year 2016 budget likewise endorses a such a mission, meaning Congress and the White House might be in rare agreement on something of consequence.

Meanwhile, mounting evidence of the Jovian moon's habitability helps along the idea of such a mission. The conditions on Europa do not merely suggest that the moon contained microbial life 100 million years ago. The conditions suggest that Europa might have life today, and that life might be more complex than a microbe. Either way, there are staggering implications for our understanding of habitability and life in the universe. If life is found on Europa, it would mean that there are at least two habitable worlds in a single solar system, suggesting a galaxy teeming with life. Conversely, if Europa, with its ideal survival conditions, is found to be barren, it might mean a much lonelier universe. If the mission were in fact fully approved and funded, it wouldn't launch until sometime in the 2020s, before making the long journey to the Jovian system.

Dr. Louise Prockter, a planetary geologist and the assistant supervisor of the Science Branch at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, would serve as one of two deputy project scientists on the mission. She was the chair of Europa's science definition team, and much like Alan Stern has spent years working to turn a mission proposal into a spacecraft on the launch pad. She and her team have internalized the lessons of the collapse of the last Europa mission, the Europa Jupiter System Mission-Laplace.

"People have been slowly but surely buying into the fact that, yeah, maybe Europa is the place that we should be going as a community," she said. "That this is really a important target."

Her team's efforts are part of a larger endeavor that involves developing the science of Europa, finding ways to trim mission costs, and keeping the community of planetary scientists on board while attracting new supporters. The team's efforts seem to be paying off, helped along by the growing scientific evidence that favors Europa. "The other thing that's helped Europa is that astrobiology has become a much bigger aspect of science," Prockter said. "And Europa, we think, is probably the best place in the solar system to go and look for life outside of the earth. It's taken years and years and years of plugging away and showing up and presenting our studies and knocking down the issues every time they come up, every time there's a problem, just figuring out a way around it. ... We are finally getting close to the finish line."

Concerning the cost of what would be a flagship-class mission for NASA, she said the lessons learned from a previous Europa proposal have informed how this one is designed. "We were forced to go back to the drawing board and rethink our whole concept and it forced us to really get down to the basics about what is really important here, and how can we do that at a lower cost? The concept we have today — the Europa Clipper concept, as it's called — is the result of the last two or three years of really concentrated study, and that has allowed us to get to a really sophisticated level of detail."

Taking from the lessons of previous canceled missions to other worlds, her team is not anticipating technology that may not materialize. The Europa mission does not rely on instruments that should be smaller, or materials that might be lighter, which means the mission is ready to go, technologically. "One of the concepts we tried to keep in our minds while we were thinking about the science for Europa: we would think about no miracles," Prockter said. "No technology that didn't exist or that couldn't be adapted fairly readily from existing technology. ... So that we didn't need to wait another 10 years for anything new to be developed; we could start with what we have now. And that also helped us keep the cost fairly low."

If elected officials are waiting for a mission worth funding, short of discovering a field of alien-built oil wells on Pluto, the scientific consensus holds that there is nowhere in the outer planets more promising than Europa. There is some poetry in that moon being the future of planetary science; it was also part of the field's origin. In 1610, when Galileo discovered Europa and three other moons of Jupiter, he made humanity's tentative first step toward establishing planetary science as a field of study. Provided lawmakers write the check, however, the challenges only just begin. When asked what happens after a "yes" call from NASA, Prockter launched into an astonishing, off-the-cuff list of considerations.

"Every spacecraft has different parts, different subsystems, different elements. We've been studying this for a long time. We have already been investigating launch vehicles. We have investigated power. We are now going to solar power; we were originally going to be a nuclear powered spacecraft. We've spent years investigating what power would we need." Her team has worked with a science definition team to take scientific objectives and translate them into mission requirements. If, for example, someone wanted to resolve an image of Europa's surface at a certain resolution, a host of issues must first be addressed. "What kind of instrument do I need? What focal length of my camera do I need? Do I need a color filter? How close to the surface do I have to be? If I'm flying by, what speed do I have to fly by at to not smear that image out? So there are so many elements to every little decision that you make, every trade that you make."

"With the US doing fewer missions, you're having a shrinking of the human presence in the solar system"

The hardware considerations aren't limited to measurement instruments and imagery. "We have propulsion. We have thermal. We're out at Jupiter — it's pretty cold out there, but we have to survive for years. And we have to get enough power to power our solar panels. We have planetary protection. How do we not take bugs from Earth and contaminate the environment? How do we not crash into Europa? How do we make sure that that doesn't happen, or that if it does happen that we're prepared for that? Radiation: how do we shield all that radiation, all those particles? Do we know enough about them? What do we need to do while we're out there? Trajectory: we've tried several different trajectories to try and minimize the radiation."

There's also the basic question of building the spacecraft itself.  "Where do you put things? How do you communicate with the ground? What sized antenna do you need? Can you get coverage from the ground stations on earth at the times you need them? There are a million different decisions to be made, but we've already made a lot of those trades, so we have this concept, and so when we get the go-ahead, when we're finally ready to go, we would actually start implementing that." Some decisions and trades must still be made. "Right now we don't have an actual payload. If NASA selects a payload from these instruments, they might not select the ones we've recommended. They might select other things because they think they're better, or their panels say they're better. So then we have to go back and if they gave us a different instrument, we'd have to figure out what science we can do with that instrument, and how do we accommodate that onto a spacecraft? It's pretty cool."

Beyond 2017

As NASA's exploration of other worlds contracts, foreign space agencies are beginning to stack triumph upon triumph. Two months before European Space Agency achieved the first soft landing on a comet, the Indian Space Research Agency put a probe in orbit around Mars. In December, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency launched Hayabusa 2, an asteroid sample return mission. In 2013, China set a lander and rover on the moon as part of an aggressive plan to put Chinese footprints on the lunar surface. There are some things, however, that only NASA can do.

"Nobody can do deep space like NASA can," said Emily Lakdawalla, the senior editor of the Planetary Society. "Other nations can go to the moon, Mars, and to the inner solar system like Venus and Mercury. But they don't have nuclear power sources. They don't have radioisotope thermoelectric generators — only the United States and Russia have those. Right now, nobody but the United States can go beyond Jupiter. With the US doing fewer planetary missions, you're having a shrinking of the human presence in the solar system and fewer missions out into the deepest part of the solar system. But there will be a lot more stuff going on at the moon and Mars and asteroids."

These robots will likely run much longer than their expected end-of-mission dates. "The fact that we have so many active missions at the same time — it's great but it's also a headache for NASA bookkeepers because it doesn't cost nothing to keep these missions going." Going forward, she said, NASA should consider a new way to plan for success so that extended missions of spacecraft don't take money from other planned missions. "You kind of wish that when a government agency were super successful that they might throw a little bit more money at that government agency."

In the meantime, the lights in the outer solar system will continue to switch off, one probe and planet at a time. NASA will continue to absorb broadsides from the Office of Management and Budget and do its best with such halfhearted executive mandates as the asteroid redirect mission. "If we're not inspired by that, it's not NASA's fault — it's our leadership's fault," said Lakdawalla. "And we need our Congress and our president and the people of the United States to stand up and say, ‘This isn't good enough. I want my moon base. I want my Mars base, and I'm willing to put the money forward to make that happen.' And if you're me, I want my outer planets missions. I want a Uranus orbiter. I want go back to Jupiter. I want to fly to the plumes of Enceladus. I want a boat on Titan. Those are what I want. I understand that not all of the American public agrees with all of those goals, so I'm not going to get them all. But I would like at least one of them."




At last a tool that looks for Chirality

Chemical Laptop' Could Search for Signs of Life Outside Earth


If you were looking for the signatures of life on another world, you would want to take something small and portable with you. That's the philosophy behind the "Chemical Laptop" being developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California: a miniaturized laboratory that analyzes samples for materials associated with life.


"If this instrument were to be sent to space, it would be the most sensitive device of its kind to leave Earth, and the first to be able to look for both amino acids and fatty acids," said Jessica Creamer, a NASA postdoctoral fellow based at JPL.


Like a tricorder from "Star Trek," the Chemical Laptop is a miniaturized on-the-go laboratory, which researchers hope to send one day to another planetary body such as Mars or Europa. It is roughly the size of a regular computing laptop, but much thicker to make room for chemical analysis components inside. But unlike a tricorder, it has to ingest a sample to analyze it.


"Our device is a chemical analyzer that can be reprogrammed like a laptop to perform different functions," said Fernanda Mora, a JPL technologist who is developing the instrument with JPL's Peter Willis, the project's principal investigator. "As on a regular laptop, we have different apps for different analyses like amino acids and fatty acids."


Amino acids are building blocks of proteins, while fatty acids are key components of cell membranes. Both are essential to life, but can also be found in non-life sources. The Chemical Laptop may be able to tell the difference.


What it's looking for


Amino acids come in two types: Left-handed and right-handed. Like the left and right hands of a person, these amino acids are mirror images of each other but contain the same components. Some scientists hypothesize that life on Earth evolved to use just left-handed amino acids because that standard was adopted early in life's history, sort of like the way VHS became the standard for video instead of Betamax in the 1980s. It's possible that life on other worlds might use the right-handed kind.


"If a test found a 50-50 mixture of left-handed and right-handed amino acids, we could conclude that the sample was probably not of biological origin," Creamer said. "But if we were to find an excess of either left or right, that would be the golden ticket. That would be the best evidence so far that life exists on other planets."


The analysis of amino acids is particularly challenging because the left- and right-handed versions are equal in size and electric charge. Even more challenging is developing a method that can look for all the amino acids in a single analysis.


When the laptop is set to look for fatty acids, scientists are most interested in the length of the acids' carbon chain. This is an indication of what organisms are or were present.


How it works


The battery-powered Chemical Laptop needs a liquid sample to analyze, which is more difficult to obtain on a planetary body such as Mars. The group collaborated with JPL's Luther Beegle to incorporate an "espresso machine" technology, in which the sample is put into a tube with liquid water and heated to above 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius). The water then comes out carrying the organic molecules with it. The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite on NASA's Mars Curiosity rover utilizes a similar principle, but it uses heat without water.


Once the water sample is fed into the Chemical Laptop, the device prepares the sample by mixing it with a fluorescent dye, which attaches the dye to the amino acids or fatty acids. The sample then flows into a microchip inside the device, where the amino acids or fatty acids can be separated from one another. At the end of the separation channel is a detection laser. The dye allows researchers see a signal corresponding to the amino acids or fatty acids when they pass the laser.


Inside a "separation channel" of the microchip, there are already chemical additives that mix with the sample. Some of these species will only interact with right-handed amino acids, and some will only interact with the left-handed variety. These additives will change the relative amount of time the left and right-handed amino acids are in the separation channel, allowing scientists to determine the "handedness" of amino acids in the sample.


Testing for future uses


Last year the researchers did a field test at JPL's Mars Yard, where they placed the Chemical Laptop on a test rover.


"This was the first time we showed the instrument works outside of the laboratory setting. This is the first step toward demonstrating a totally portable and automated instrument that can operate in the field," said Mora.


For this test, the laptop analyzed a sample of "green rust," a mineral that absorbs organic molecules in its layers and may be significant in the origin of life, said JPL's Michael Russell, who helped provide the sample.


"One ultimate goal is to put a detector like this on a spacecraft such as a Mars rover, so for our first test outside the lab we literally did that," said Willis.


Since then, Mora has been working to improve the sensitivity of the Chemical Laptop so it can detect even smaller amounts of amino acids or fatty acids. Currently, the instrument can detect concentrations as low as parts per trillion. Mora is currently testing a new laser and detector technology.


Coming up is a test in the Atacama Desert in Chile, with collaboration from NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, through a grant from NASA's Planetary Science & Technology Through Analog Research (PSTAR) program.


"This could also be an especially useful tool for icy-worlds targets such as Enceladus and Europa. All you would need to do is melt a little bit of the ice, and you could sample it and analyze it directly," Creamer said.


The Chemical Laptop technology has applications for Earth, too. It could be used for environmental monitoring -- analyzing samples directly in the field, rather than taking them back to a laboratory. Uses for medicine could include testing whether the contents of drugs are legitimate or counterfeit.


Creamer recently won an award for her work in this area at JPL's Postdoc Research Day Poster Session.


NASA's PICASSO program, part of the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, supported this research. The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA

Horowitz crater, named for the Viking scientists who insisted there can be no water on Mars.


Mars drool

Running Water Today on Mars!

Now, how do we sample it?


The dark, fingerlike features that flow down the slopes of several Martian outcroppings, including Horowitz crater in warm weather have been found to be water with sufficient salt content to resist freezing.

NASA will announce on Monday that these "recurring slope lineae" (RSL), which have been spotted by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) at low and middle latitudes on the Red Planet are contemporary running water.

Near constant observation for multiple years has shown that the RSL fade during cooler months but come back again annually at nearly the same locations over multiple Martian years.

Evidence is sufficient to conclude that RSL are the mark of some kind of volatile substance, and the consensus theory posits that RSL are caused by the flow of salt-laden liquid water.


A major change in Mars exploration agenda


With that out of the way the agenda for Mars exploration must be changed first because RSL are the best markers of available water to help sustain future crewed Mars expeditions?

Also, RSL sites offer insights into subsurface Mars, as well as help identify places where microbial life could occur on the Red Planet.

Researcher David Stillman has studied an RSL site in the huge Martian canyon Valles Marineris that he suggests is being recharged by an aquifer.

The total amount of water liberated from that area equals eight to 17 Olympic-size swimming pools, and the only way to annually recharge such a large volume of water is via an aquifer, said Stillman, who's based at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

"I just think that these features are the best places to look for extant life," Stillman told


Not if but how?


How RSL sites should be explored generated spirited debate during the second Mars 2020 Landing Site Workshop, which was held last month in Monrovia, California.

Since NASA the mantra has been to follow the water when seeking life in space, the astrobiological potential of RSL sites drives them into the category of "special regions" under the COSPAR rules for planetary protection.

The Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) defines special regions on Mars as areas "within which terrestrial organisms are likely to replicate" and states that "any region which is interpreted to have a high potential for the existence of extant Martian life forms is also defined as a special region."

Doug Bernard, Mars 2020 Project system engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said planetary protection for the rover project "is a very rich topic."


2020 is too soon for RSL exploration?


Bernard said that the Mars 2020 rover will not land in a formally defined naturally occurring special region, or any region where ice has been observed or is credibly predicted within 16 feet (5 meters) of the surface. Also, once down on the Martian surface, the future rover cannot drive to a region of interest within a special region. Curiosity has identical, whispered, constraints

With the space drool running down the side of craters and other outcrops the best and perhaps only way to gather samples would be with drone copters that can hover and reach out to gather a sample.

But with Mars 10 minutes away by radio, there is no way to manually control a drone with precision to take a sample.


Teach the drones to retrieve


However, for several years students and business have been competing in various autonomous robot competitions. The goal is to program a robot to find an object and bring it back with onboard instructions only. That process has culminated in the recent contest among twenty robotics teams, ranging from university students to small businesses who entered the fourth running of the NASA Sample Return Robot Challenge for a prize purse of $1.5 million.

NASA explains, “NASA’s deep space agenda calls for harnessing both robotic and human skills to explore faraway destinations, such as Mars, the asteroids and beyond. As part of that quest, there is need for high-tech advancement in autonomous navigation, sense and avoid capability, object recognition capacity, and robotic manipulator technology – and to tap the creative knowhow of those in academia, industry and other government agencies.”

The competitors have succeeded in developing the software to teach pattern recognition and random searching to their rover-style robots.

The same technology, with a dozen or so years of refinement, ought to be sufficient to remotely guide a hovering Mars probe as it harvests the drool on Horowitz crater.

RSL streaks challenge planetary protection constraints

The dark, fingerlike features that creep down steep Martian slopes in warm weather continue to puzzle scientists.

These "recurring slope lineae" (RSL), which have been spotted by NASA'sMars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) at low and middle latitudes on the Red Planet, fade during cooler months but come back again annually at nearly the same locations over multiple Martian years.

Scientists continue to debate the true nature of the RSL phenomenon; no guess as to what they are and why they occur yet satisfies all observations. And just how RSL sites should be explored generates spirited debate, as evidenced by the discussions that emerged during the second Mars 2020 Landing Site Workshop, which was held last month in Monrovia, California. [Photos: The Search for Water on Mars]

More than 200 researchers and engineers participated in that meeting, sifting through data and imagery in an effort to narrow down potential landing sites for NASA’s next Mars rover, which is scheduled to launch in 2020.

Sites for Mars life?

Evidence is mounting that RSL are the mark of some kind of volatile substance, and a leading theory posits that they are caused by the flow of salt-laden liquid water. If so, could RSL be the best markers of available water to help sustain future crewed Mars expeditions?

RSL sites may also offer insights into subsurface Mars, as well as help identify places where microbial life could occur on the Red Planet, some scientists say.

For example, researcher David Stillman has studied an RSL site in the huge Martian canyon Valles Marineris that he suggests is being recharged by an aquifer.

The total amount of water liberated from that area equals eight to 17 Olympic-size swimming pools, and the only way to annually recharge such a large volume of water is via an aquifer, said Stillman, who's based at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

"I just think that these features are the best places to look for extant life," Stillman told at the workshop. [The Search for Life on Mars (A Photo Timeline)]

Caution warranted

The astrobiological potential of RSL sites has some scientists stressing caution, contending that the areas should be treated as "special regions" forplanetary protection purposes in any Mars exploration plan.

Recurring slope lineae (RSL) seep in Garni crater on the floor of Mars' Melas Chasm.
Credit: A. McEwen/NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

The Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) defines special regions on Mars as areas "within which terrestrial organisms are likely to replicate" and states that "any region which is interpreted to have a high potential for the existence of extant Martian life forms is also defined as a special region."

John Rummel, a senior scientist at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, California, thinks humanity should exercise caution in studying RSL sites.

"One of the central goals for Mars exploration is to determine whether or not Mars is the abode of life … or was in the past. Another is to understand the surface of Mars to ensure that it is, or can be, safe for human exploration," Rummel, a former NASA planetary protection officer and COSPAR panel chair, told

"Both of these goals would be harmed, perhaps permanently, by the introduction of Earth organisms into environments on Mars where they could grow and reproduce," he added.

The RSL features are indicative, "at the very least," Rummel said, of processes on Mars that involve fluid flows that nobody understands. And it may very well be that the fluid is liquid water, he added.

"To blunder into RSL without cleaning up your rover first, prior to launch, would be a tragic mistake, and a foolish one," Rummel said. "The fact that RSL are on steep slopes where one could very well lose the rover to an unplanned tumble only compounds the problem."

Before we study RSL "in depth," Rummel said, "we need to be prepared for the unknown, and clean enough to sink into them if they turn out to be soft spots on the slopes of Mars."

How close is too close?

How to protect RSL sites adequately is a complicated issue. For example, some scientists at the landing-site meeting asked a difficult question: How close is too close, as far as RSL and special regions are concerned? Could the Mars 2020 rover park on a hillside near an RSL site and study the features from afar?

Features called recurring slope lineae (RSL), which could indicate seasonal flows of salty water, are found on some Martian slopes in warmer months. Red arrows point out an RSL in this image taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera system on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Credit: A. McEwen/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

"NASA needs to define a policy about landing-site candidates near confirmed or candidate RSL sites," James Wray, an assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said at the gathering.

The $1.5 billion Mars 2020 rover likely won't roll through RSL sites if they are indeed designated as special regions. The chosen locale for the car-size robot should show geologic diversity, with the rover able to access rocks believed to be capable of preserving biosignatures of past Mars life, if any ever existed, NASA officials have said. [‪NASA's Mars Rover 2020 Mission in Pictures (Gallery)]

During last month’s meeting, Doug Bernard, Mars 2020 Project system engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said planetary protection for the rover project "is a very rich topic."

Mars Myths & Misconceptions: Quiz

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Bernard said that the Mars 2020 rover will not land in a formally defined naturally occurring special region, or any region where ice has been observed or is credibly predicted within 16 feet (5 meters) of the surface. Also, once down on the Martian surface, the future rover cannot drive to a region of interest within a special region.

Many questions to answer

Scientists continue to investigate the RSL phenomenon, for many questions remain.

For example: Is the origin of RSL water atmospheric? If so, RSL sites may show where it is easiest to extract water from the atmosphere. Or does RSL water come from the subsurface? If this is the case, then habitability at these sites would be more favorable, Wray said in his presentation, which was co-authored by Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona, principal investigator of MRO's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera system; Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science center in Flagstaff, Arizona; and Matt Chojnacki, an associate staff scientist for HiRISE at the University of Arizona.

"We don’t think that we’re seeing actual liquid water … we’re not seeing the gun going off, but I would call this maybe the smoke from the gun," Wray said. Having the Mars 2020 rover land near an RSL site would be "most excellent" for Mars science and future exploration, he said.

The future

HiRISE is at the forefront of the ongoing RSL studies. The camera helps chart the features, with snapshots of closely monitored sites typically taken every few weeks.

More data from HiRISE could help unravel the RSL mystery, Stillman said.

"It is essential to determine where these features are," he said. "Once we know where, then hopefully we can answer why."

Stillman said that, along with HiRISE imagery, "we are trying to use computers to interpret where the RSL are so we can compute all sorts of statistics on them to really understand when and why they flow."

Such modeling work is difficult because salt concentrations change during the flow, and the brine freezes each day, he added.

Stillman and other researchers would love to put even more resources toward studying RSL sites. A dedicated Mars orbiter that focuses on RSL would be desirable, Stillman said, as would landed assets that sit and watch RSL flows while making thermal and water vapor measurements.

Wray also voiced a desire for the up-close investigation of RSL features.

"It would be great if we could observe these things throughout the days of their prime activity," he said.

"RSL appear to grow very rapidly right after they form … for months afterward the growth is much slower than the initial burst," Wray added. "But if we could just drive near enough to obtain remote-sensing observations, we could get really unique observations that we will never get from orbit."

Wray said that it’s advisable to think ahead to future human exploration of Mars. "RSL could be the best markers of available water near the equator that we have. Think positive, not only negative, about RSL."



Illustration of the interior of Saturn's moon Enceladus showing a global liquid water ocean between its rocky core and icy crust. Thickness of layers shown here is not to scale. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
› Full image and caption

A global ocean lies beneath the icy crust of Saturn's geologically active moon Enceladus, according to new research using data from NASA's Cassini mission.

Researchers found the magnitude of the moon's very slight wobble, as it orbits Saturn, can only be accounted for if its outer ice shell is not frozen solid to its interior, meaning a global ocean must be present.

The finding implies the fine spray of water vapor, icy particles and simple organic molecules Cassini has observed coming from fractures near the moon's south pole is being fed by this vast liquid water reservoir. The research is presented in a paper published online this week in the journal Icarus.

Previous analysis of Cassini data suggested the presence of a lens-shaped body of water, or sea, underlying the moon's south polar region. However, gravity data collected during the spacecraft's several close passes over the south polar region lent support to the possibility the sea might be global. The new results -- derived using an independent line of evidence based on Cassini's images -- confirm this to be the case.

"This was a hard problem that required years of observations, and calculations involving a diverse collection of disciplines, but we are confident we finally got it right," said Peter Thomas, a Cassini imaging team member at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, and lead author of the paper.

Cassini scientists analyzed more than seven years' worth of images of Enceladus taken by the spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since mid-2004. They carefully mapped the positions of features on Enceladus -- mostly craters -- across hundreds of images, in order to measure changes in the moon's rotation with extreme precision.

As a result, they found Enceladus has a tiny, but measurable wobble as it orbits Saturn. Because the icy moon is not perfectly spherical -- and because it goes slightly faster and slower during different portions of its orbit around Saturn -- the giant planet subtly rocks Enceladus back and forth as it rotates.

The team plugged their measurement of the wobble, called a libration, into different models for how Enceladus might be arranged on the inside, including ones in which the moon was frozen from surface to core.

"If the surface and core were rigidly connected, the core would provide so much dead weight the wobble would be far smaller than we observe it to be," said Matthew Tiscareno, a Cassini participating scientist at the SETI Institute, Mountain View, California, and a co-author of the paper. "This proves that there must be a global layer of liquid separating the surface from the core."

The mechanisms that might have prevented Enceladus' ocean from freezing remain a mystery. Thomas and colleagues suggest a few ideas for future study that might help resolve the question, including the surprising possibility that tidal forces due to Saturn's gravity could be generating much more heat within Enceladus than previously thought.

"This is a major step beyond what we understood about this moon before, and it demonstrates the kind of deep-dive discoveries we can make with long-lived orbiter missions to other planets," said co-author Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team lead at Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colorado, and visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. "Cassini has been exemplary in this regard."

The unfolding story of Enceladus has been one of the great triumphs of Cassini's long mission at Saturn. Scientists first detected signs of the moon's icy plume in early 2005, and followed up with a series of discoveries about the material gushing from warm fractures near its south pole. They announced strong evidence for a regional sea in 2014, and more recently, in 2015, they shared results that suggest hydrothermal activity is taking place on the ocean floor.

Cassini is scheduled to make a close flyby of Enceladus on Oct. 28, in the mission's deepest-ever dive through the moon's active plume of icy material. The spacecraft will pass a mere 30 miles (49 kilometers) above the moon's surface.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages the mission for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The Cassini imaging operations center is based at SSI. The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA.

For more information about Cassini, visit:


'Old Vikings' Recall NASA's First Successful Mars Landing


“…, in addition to the discovery that the surface of Mars is unlike any other surface in the solar system, it just may be that in 1976 the people sitting in this room discovered the presence of life on Mars."  . Joel Levine




NASA has planted landers and rovers on Mars a handful of times in recent decades, and a future crewed mission to the Red Planet is in sight.


Much of the fundamental science that has enabled those missions (and that will help us send humans to the fourth planet from the sun, too) has its roots in a program known as Viking.


Credits: NASA

July 20 marked 39 years since the Viking 1 lander first settled onto the rocky Martian surface and started collecting data. A few weeks later, Viking 2 did the same.


On July 30, five men who helped ensure the success of the Viking program visited NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, to share their memories. NASA Langley managed the Viking program from 1968 to 1978.


John Newcomb, who served on the Viking management team, discussed the project's evolution and contributions to the NASA and aerospace community.


In addition, four of Newcomb's former colleagues shared their first-hand experiences with the mission and its discoveries. Those colleagues included Norman Crabill, Viking mission design manager; Gus Guastaferro, Viking deputy project manager; Paul Siemers, Viking lander aerothermodynamics engineer; and Joel Levine, a former NASA Langley scientist.


All five of the "Old Vikings," as they're sometimes called, offered fascinating insight into what it was like to land a machine on Mars in the 1970s. Here are a few of the interesting things they shared:


The original landing date for Viking 1 was supposed to be on the nation's bicentennial, July 4, 1976. "We put that out to all the press — everything," said Newcomb. "Then of course we didn't do it." The original landing site appeared too rough. As the team gave itself more time to find a suitable landing site, pressure mounted for NASA to reveal a new date. During a particularly prickly press conference, a reporter "came on aggressive" to Tom Young, Viking mission director, wanting to know what the new landing date would be. The team still hadn't decided. Newcomb remembers Jim Martin, Viking project manager, cutting in. "I'll take this question," he said. "We will land when I consider it safe to land — and not one minute before."


John Newcomb, part of the Viking management team, discussed the project's evolution and contributions to the NASA and aerospace community during a recent Viking seminar.



The first photo taken on Mars captured just a few feet of the Martian surface and part of one of the lander's footpads. There was good reason for that. According to Newcomb, one of the questions people have most frequently asked over the years is, "You could have taken a picture of this beautiful landscape, but you took a picture of a footpad?" The rationale was purely scientific. "We wanted to understand what the bearing strength of that surface was," Newcomb said. "We wanted to understand how the surface would respond to the footpad."


The Viking program generated some impressive technologies. Among many other firsts, the Viking 1 lander was the first spacecraft to be completely sterilized. Part of that sterilization process involved folding the lander into a hermetically sealed cocoon then putting it in an oven and cooking it at 120 degrees for 40 hours. "We're dealing with 1960s technology here," Newcomb said. "Take your phone and throw it in the oven and do that — then try to make a phone call. I dare you."


Even with all the impressive technological breakthroughs, science was always at the root of the Viking program. "We were science driven," Guastaferro said, "rather than aeronautics, rather than space, rather than technology." From 1968 to 1976, a group of more than 70 scientists from universities around the country helped define the Viking program, and had a say in every critical aspect of it, from engineering, to design, to operation. "We never lost sight of what our customer was," Guastaferro said. "Our customer was knowledge and science."


Both landers had unexpectedly rocky welcomes to the Red Planet — literally. Using the best available data and images, the Viking team looked for a smooth place to set down the first lander. After the initial site turned out to be a no-go, the team finally found a spot that looked relatively rock free. It wasn't. For Viking 2, the team chose a spot where a geologist predicted the rocks would be buried beneath 25 feet of sand. That also turned out to be untrue. But the rocky terrain didn't hinder the mission. "You had to be able react to the reality of what you got," Crabill said, "and we did."



The Viking program gave us some awesome technologies, but also relied on technologies that seem pretty antiquated today. Siemers ran through a list of technologies that didn't exist when he was figuring out to how to send the Viking landers racing through the Martian atmosphere down to the surface — smartphones, desktop computers, computational fluid dynamics, conference calls, PowerPoint. "What we did have — and this is kind of tongue in cheek — was a central computing system," Siemers said. "It was a building up the road here in which after you wrote your program and punched all your little cards and put them in a box and carried them to the central computing system, you put them in the queue. Then you go back to your office and they'd call you when your run was over. And that might take an hour, a day, a week — you never knew."


Did Viking discover life on Mars? No. Yes. Maybe? According to Levine, the picture is still unclear — but maybe yes? Both Viking landers conducted three biological experiments, and on both landers one of those experiments, the Labeled Release experiment, or LR, gave what appeared to be positive results. Gilbert Levin, the principal investigator for LR, believes the experiment did in fact reveal metabolic activity in the Martian soil. That's long been a minority belief. The general consensus in the scientific community has been that the results showed a false positive. But two years ago a group of microbiologists at the University of California, San Francisco analyzed all the Viking LR data and, like Levin, concluded that the data was consistent with a biological explanation. "So in addition to the 55,000 pictures of the surface of Mars taken from orbit," Levine said, "in addition to the 5,500 pictures of Mars's surface, in addition to the first measurements of the atmosphere composition, pressure and density, in addition to the discovery that the surface of Mars is unlike any other surface in the solar system, it just may be that in 1976 the people sitting in this room discovered the presence of life on Mars."

How NASA's Curiosity rover could settle the debate over methane on Mars -it is the anniversary today!

Methane is a signature of organic matter — potentially, even, of life

By Loren Grush


on August 5, 2015 09:05 am





Later this year, NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover could solve a big mystery that has plagued the scientific community for half a century: does Mars have methane in its atmosphere?

Curiosity celebrates three years of exploring Mars tonight. The car-sized robot landed on the planet at 1:17AM ET on August 6th, 2012 and has since learned a lot about its red home — including the existence of ancient water flows. It's also measured the radiation levels on Mars and found evidence that the planet could have supported life millions of years ago.

Curiosity's biggest discovery came late last year, however, when NASA researchers announced that the rover had detected methane spikes in Mars' atmosphere — which may mean something is producing the gas on the planet. In a study published in Science, the researchers wrote that Curiosity's onboard Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) laboratory measured the average amount of methane in the air to be 7 parts per billion during late 2013 and early 2014. Measurement just before and after that time detected methane in the atmosphere at just 0.7 parts per billion.


The findings have reignited a decades-long debate over whether or not methane exists on Mars. Back in the 1960s, a NASA spacecraft seemed to have detected methane — but upon closer inspection, it had sniffed out the wrong gas. Since then, researchers have used telescopes and other spacecraft to try to definitively locate methane coming from the planet. Methane on Mars is a big deal: it would end the long-standing debate, of course, but it also has significant implications. Methane is a signature of organic matter — potentially, even, of life. On Earth, about 90 percent of atmospheric methane is produced from the breakdown of organic matter.

"So by extrapolation, if there’s methane on Mars, it's possible that it's coming from biological sources," Chris Webster, lead author of the Science study and senior research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, tells The Verge.

However, not everyone in the scientific community is convinced that the methane Curiosity detected is coming from Mars. Kevin Zahnle, a scientist at NASA Ames Research Center, says that the measurements are behaving in a funny way — suddenly appearing and then disappearing. This indicates that the methane is coming from somewhere nearby, but he says it’s not from a Martian source. "There is a known local source of methane on Mars, and it’s the rover itself," says Zahnle. "So just from the Occam's razor perspective, you have to think that the methane is somehow coming from the rover."

The methane saga

Whether or not Mars' atmosphere holds methane has been hotly debated for decades. The drama began in 1969, when researchers at the University of California-Berkeley announced that NASA's Mariner 7 spacecraft flying past Mars had detected methane near the planet’s polar ice caps. Those findings were retracted a month later after it turned out the methane signal had actually been carbon dioxide coming off the polar ice — the spacecraft’s instrument wasn’t sensitive enough to distinguish between CO2 and methane.

This image shows concentrations of methane discovered on Mars by NASA researchers in 2003. (NASA)

Then, NASA researchers using ground-based telescopes said they had mapped multiple methane plumes coming off the Martian surface in 2003. They released an intricate map of these plumes, showing distinct areas of methane measuring 60 parts per billion; Earth's atmosphere is estimated to have nearly 2,000 parts per billion of methane.

Except there was a problem: the methane signatures didn’t last very long. By 2006 they had all but disappeared. That's perplexing since methane has a chemical lifetime of 300 years on Mars, which is how long it takes ultraviolet light from the Sun to break the molecule apart. Methane discovered in 2003 should still have been around a mere three years later.


In 2004, the Mars Express — a satellite orbiting the planet — also detected methane in the atmosphere. The regions where the spacecraft found methane didn’t match up with the locations seen by ground-based telescopes, though. These inconsistencies led Zahnle and a group of researchers to conclude that there wasn’t definitive evidence for methane on Mars.

That’s why part of Curiosity’s mission goal was measuring methane. In theory, evidence of the gas detected on the Martian surface should be more reliable than detection from Earth or Mars orbit. The rover's engineers equipped the bot with the SAM instrument, which is specifically designed to search for chemical compounds of carbon — including methane.

But when Curiosity first arrived on Mars in 2012, SAM didn't pick up any methane coming from the Martian atmosphere for nearly a year.

A plume in bloom

Curiosity's SAM instrument consists of two chambers. One of them, the foreoptics chamber, generates a laser light that shines into the other, called the sample cell chamber. That sample chamber is filled with — yep — samples of Martian air. The laser then bounces back and forth between two mirrors inside the sample cell. The length of time it takes the laser to bounce between the mirrors tells the researchers what compounds — including methane — are found in the sample.

Curiosity's SAM instrument consists of two different chambers — the foreoptics chamber and the sample cell chamber. (NASA/JPL)

When the NASA research team first switched on the SAM instrument after Curiosity had landed, they detected high methane signals right away. But that methane came from Earth — a little bit of Florida’s air had come along with Curiosity for its ride, stowed away in the foreoptics chamber. So the researchers pumped out the chamber, leaving just a little bit of methane to act as a signal for comparison.

After that, SAM picked up very tiny signals of methane, at around 0.7 parts per billion. Webster says that was considered a "non-detection" in the science community. "The community was very disappointed," he says. "There were thousands of news stories claiming there was no life on Mars based on those measurements."

Then starting in late 2013, SAM measured four big methane spikes. Together the measurements averaged at 7 parts per billion — a fairly high value, and 10 times the previous reading. The spikes were detected over a period of two months before they disappeared, and SAM went back to picking up 0.7 parts per billion of methane. This led the researchers to believe that the rover had encountered one of the planet's mysterious methane plumes for a little while.

Was it just a leak?

Curiosity is currently located in Gale Crater. (NASA)

When Zahnle first heard about these findings, he was immediately suspicious. There are a few ways that the rover may be responsible for the methane, he says. It’s possible that the methane is leaking from one of the substances inside Curiosity — or the methane left inside the foreoptics chamber is building up somehow. Zahnle says the Curiosity team is aware of these potential leak sources, but that the researchers are making a "more hopeful" interpretation of where the methane spikes are coming from.

"It would be nice if they were a little less totally optimistic about their approach," says Zahnle."It's documented that methane is building up in the rover. It's coming from the rover. Some place or places are leaking and creating methane."


But Webster rejects the idea that the rover is to blame, saying it's impossible. He notes that 7 parts per billion is just too high of a concentration to be coming from the foreoptics chamber. "The numbers just don't add up for that," says Webster.

We may have a resolution to the debate very soon, according to Webster. It's possible that the high methane is seasonal and occurs every year on Mars in the northern spring. This November will mark one full Martian year since the methane spikes two years ago — so if the plumes return, it means they are cyclical. "If the methane comes back, that will be the biggest story about Mars methane to date, because it's not just seeing high methane; we'll see a pattern in it."

A return of methane could indicate two different explanations for the gas. It’s possible that every Martian spring, the Sun is positioned where it breaks down ancient organic material near where Curiosity is currently located. Or it could mean something much more exciting — that living beings on Mars are actively producing methane, and it takes them a full Martian year to do it.

But if the methane doesn't return, it could mean the measurements were a fluke. So is Mars a barren space rock, or a place where microbes can survive? Three years into its mission, rather than solving the controversy, Curiosity has only deepened it.


Phobos rears its ugly head

The reason NASA is seriously considering landing first on Mars's moon Phobos is that NASA does not have sufficient weather forecasting ability for storms on Mars.

If NASA picks a date for a Mars landing and a set of locations there is no certainty that when the astronauts arrive they will be able to see the landing site or land on it should a sand storm emerge.

That is what happened with the Mariner 9 mission which blasted off with the air clear at Mars and arrived months later to find the planet engulfed in blowing sand.

A trip designed to land on Phobos should not be deterred by bad weather, testing the technique and equipment for a Mars duration mission while NASA improves its Mars weather forecasting ability. You won't read that in the following article but that is the base-line consideration.

Mission to Phobos – The precursor to human Mars landing

31, 2015 by Chris Gebhardt

The next great adventures for human space exploration have been touted as missions to asteroids and to the Martian surface. But a new presentation by NASA has revealed a line of thought within the agency regarding a potential human or robotic mission to Mars’ largest moon Phobos as the key precursor mission to the Red Planet.

A phased approach:

Part of NASA’s drive for human exploration beyond the confines of Earth’s gravitational sphere involves a phased approach instead of an outright push to Mars.

While criticized by some as ineffective and an inappropriate use of funding, a phased approach to an eventual mission to the Martian surface would allow NASA time to develop and test – in multiple settings and modes – the needed technologies for a Martian surface mission over the course of a couple decades rather than in a relatively short period of time with limited testing opportunities.

Despite the criticism, this phased approach is already underway with the development of the new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket as well as the Orion service module and capsule – which made its maiden test flight on 5 December 2014.

Moreover, another controversially important part of this phased development is the proposedupcoming Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) in the 2020s.

The ARM mission would see the in-flight test of a Solar Electric Power (SEP) thruster system to propel a spacecraft to a Near Earth Asteroid (NEA), land on that NEA, collect a 4m boulder from the NEA’s surface, demonstrate at least one planetary defense procedure, and then fly the collected boulder back to Earth and place it into a stable lunar orbit.

Robotic and potential human exploration of the newly redirected asteroid boulder (along with missions to the Earth-moon Lagrangian points) would then provide NASA with additional opportunities to develop what are known as Cis Lunar (the area of space extending from just above Earth’s atmosphere to just beyond the orbit of the moon) technologies that will help with the push toward the Martian system.

However, it now appears that NASA is at least considering a potential precursor mission to the surface of Phobos before pressing forward with human surface operations on Mars.

Why go to Phobos first?

Precursor missions to the surface of Phobos prior to undertaking human Martian surface operations would allow for a continuation in the phased approach of development, implementation, and in-situ testing/experience of the necessary hardware for an eventual Mars surface mission.

See Also

Mars Forum Section

L2 SLS Section

L2 Mars Section

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In fact, Phobos was at the center of NASA’s “Flexible Path” approach that was set to become a front-runner in the Agency’s direction after the Constellation Program (CxP) faltered in the face of criticism at the Augustine Committee.

“A human Mars Orbit/Phobos Mission represents an intermediate step between human exploration missions in near-Earth space and human missions to explore the surface of Mars,” noted the expansive section on the manned missions to Mars/Phobos in the expansive – yet unpublished – presentation (available to download on L2).

However, the Flexible Path approach required a massive campaign that would have been – and still is – unpalatable for SLS, based on flight rate alone.

The 2009 overview called for several Mars Transport Vehicles (Cargo and Crew) to be assembled in Low Earth Orbit before heading off to the vicinity of Mars – via a Venus flyby – requiring up to 15 launches of a Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV).

“Assuming hydrogen-oxygen in-space propulsion, the number of HLV launches varies between 10 and 15,” added the overview. “Once all of the in-space propulsive stages are assembled in LEO, the crew is launched via Orion and the crew departs for Mars.”

That was 2009.

Currently, NASA’s plans for Mars remain under evaluation with theinternal Design Reference Mission (DRM) process.

Nonetheless, a large amount of work is now beginning to take place via the Human Architecture Team (HAT) evaluations, laying the foundations on the huge challenges associated with sending humans to Mars – and returning them safely.

The specific roadmap is still some years away. However, the likelihood of “Phobos First” continues to be referenced in NASA documentation.

The continuing thread surrounding a Phobos mission centers on aiding the development and testing of the technologies needed for Mars surface missions.

Such technologies and hardware include the Phobos Surface Habitat/Landing System, the Phobos Exploration Vehicle (PEV), the PEV-derived Taxi, and exploration suit ports built with exploration environment and atmospheric considerations.

Importantly, these Phobos vehicles and habitats would be designed for use on Mars as well.

Thus, a majority of all Phobos architecture, with the sole exception of the Phobos surface mobility systems – which would be specifically designed for Phobos’ extremely low gravity environment – would subsequently be used for Mars surface missions.

Moreover, the proposed Phobos precursor mission, which assumes the SLS rocket, Orion spacecraft, and exploration suits are already developed, would specifically develop – or continue the development of – seven (7) of the 16 necessary pieces of architecture needed for a Mars surface mission that will either not be developed for or need to be evolved from NEA and Cis Lunar missions.

Among these seven Phobos architectural developments would be the Space Electric Propulsion drive, the Deep Space Habitat, the CPS, the SEV cabin, Phobos Mobility System, suit ports, and hab landing gear.

The hab landing gear would most likely derive from part of the ARM mission architecture base (landing a spacecraft on the surface of an NEA), while several other elements, including SEP, suit ports, microgravity geology, and landing legs, will all derive from Cis Lunar and ARM architecture.

Thus, the Deep Space Habitat, SEV cabin, CPS, and Phobos Mobility System will all be new developments.

However, by developing these seven architectural frameworks for a Phobos-specific mission, only nine remaining Mars surface specific developments would be needed to make the leap from the Phobos mission to a Mars surface mission.

In contrast, should a direct Martian surface mission be chosen, not only will the nine Mars surface specific technologies need to be developed, but the seven Phobos specific requirements will also be needed and have to be funded and developed at the same time.

Thus, the Human Exploration of Phobos and Robotic Precursor Mission presentation notes that “Within an Evolvable Mars Campaign that starts with ARM and Cis Lunar infrastructure, Phobos is a viable human target that is a sensible and relatively affordable step to the Mars system.”

As such, a mission to Phobos would not only return valuable scientific data about the composition of one of Mars’ moons, but would also “enhance and possibly enable the human Mars surface mission” through a phased development and implementation approach.

(Images: Via NASA and L2 – including SLS renders from L2 artist Nathan Koga)

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NASA 'On The Cusp' Of Discovering If Life Exists Beyond Earth, Says Top Scientist

Jennifer BenderyWhite House and congressional reporter, The Huffington Post

Posted: 07/28/2015 | Edited: 07/28/2015 06:02 PM EDT

WASHINGTON -- There's evidence of an interior ocean on Pluto. One of Jupiter's moons has a global ocean beneath its crust that could contain more than twice as much water as Earth. There are at least half a dozen of these ocean worlds in our solar system alone -- and where there's water, there may be answers about the potential for life across the universe.

That's what a panel of planetary scientists told the House Science, Space and Technology Committee Tuesday, and left everyone's minds blown.

"Are we alone? Many, many people on planet Earth want to know," said Dr. John Grunsfeld, a physicist and former astronaut who now leads NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "We are on the cusp of being able to answer that question … because of the investments we're making in space technology."

Grunsfeld joined four other panelists in urging lawmakers to keep up federal funding for space exploration. They all described exciting new developments, but one didn't need much explaining: Earlier this month, the NASA space probe New Horizons completed its historic flyby of Pluto. NASA has received only a tiny amount of data back so far -- it's going to take 16 months to get it all, as it travels across 3 billion miles of space -- but there have already been surprising discoveries.

"We found evidence of nitrogen glaciers … A mountain range as tall as the Rockies," said Dr. Alan Stern, the principal investigator for the New Horizons mission. "With only 5 percent of the data on the ground, we all feel like we need to fasten our seatbelts for the remaining 95 percent. This is quite a ride, scientifically."

Scientists criticized the House committee in May for voting to slash NASA's budget for Earth Sciences missions by $300 million. The White House has already threatened to veto the GOP bill for cuts to those missions and NASA's commercial crew program, among other items.

Republicans seem to have a soft spot for space exploration, though. Their bill would boost spending for planetary science, despite the other cuts.

"It is crucial that NASA continue to explore our solar system," Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said in Tuesday's hearing. "Planetary science teaches us about how our solar system works and provides clues about how it was formed."

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), also on the committee, said it's probably best if lawmakers aren't "meddling in the scientific work" of NASA to decide what projects are and aren't worth funding.

"I would like us, as members of Congress, to step aside and make sure we provide you the resources you need, and expect that we may not know the value of that for 50 years in the running," said Edwards. "I am indeed okay with that."

NASA has two major, decadelong projects in the works that require Congress to provide steady funding for space exploration. One would launch a new Mars rover in 2020, loaded with instruments to search for signs of ancient Martian life and to collect rock samples to send back to Earth. The other would send a spacecraft to Jupiter in the 2020s to orbit the planet for three years, providing opportunities for close flybys of Europa, one of Jupiter's moons that scientists believe has the potential to host life in its ocean. Like the Mars mission, the broader goal of the Europa mission is to determine if it's habitable for human life.

In that vein, Dr. Robert Braun of the Georgia Institute of Technology argued that the next great space quest is accessing water. He noted that NASA has no plans to access water on its Mars or Jupiter missions, which he said is a mistake.

"Now is the time to organize and initiate a series of robotic missions focused on the fundamental questions of evolution, habitability and life across our solar system’s ocean worlds," said Braun.

"Going all the way to Europa without touching its surface is like driving across the country to Disneyland and then staying in the parking lot."


International space community worries over “stagnation"


The world’s space programs have not compellingly demonstrated either the urgency or the benefits of investing significant sums of money in a global exploration program



          Human travel to Mars is the “ultimate goal” of the international space community, industry professionals affirmed this week at an International Space University panel concerning the future of human space flight.

          A lack of funding and key critical technologies has made the endeavor a horizon goal, however, with leading global space agencies saying astronauts’ boots will not graze the surface of the Red Planet until well into the 2030s.

          Rather, exploration of the Low Earth Orbit (LEO), near-earth asteroids, and the moon will constitute the bulk of leading space agencies’ near-term goals.           

Under the moniker of ISECG, or the International Space Exploration Coordination Group, 14 of these agencies will oversee the development of an international finance and research consensus that panelists here were optimistic would launch the global scientific community into a new era of cosmic exploration.

          “Despite what you may read or hear, we believe the future of space exploration is bright,” said Kathy Laurini, a senior advisor at NASA and that agency’s lead delegate to ISECG on Monday.

          Laurini stressed the importance of both unmanned and manned missions in LEO, saying the areas closest to our planet will serve as a “proving ground” for research and development vital to the success of a future Mars mission.

          Rockets, life-support and communications systems made the short list of critical infrastructure requiring improvement for deep space travel.

          “Mars is the most challenging destination for our generation to think about getting to,” Laurini said. “We’re not going to get there without our international partners.”

          Jean-Jacques Favier, an astronaut and former French space agency delegate to ISECG, said that it was imperative to “develop critical technologies right now.” Among those: 3-D printers for space, and oxygen producing/carbon dioxide reducing instruments.

          Panelists also touched on the seeming “stagnation” of space exploration in previous years, pointing out that a combination of factors, including financial restraints and a public disinterest in space, have hampered efforts.

          “The world’s space programs have not compellingly demonstrated either the urgency or the benefits of investing significant sums of money in a global exploration program,” said David Kendall, former Canadian Space Agency lead to ISECG and current ISU faculty member.

          “I cannot see one nation investing on a Mars mission alone,” he added.

Laurini argued that the key to reinvigorating public interest and policy-maker support is in “trying to build a plan at the technical level to work across (presidential) administrations.”

          An active public relations campaign, especially through social media, could spark a public dialogue on the merits of a robust space program, she added.

          “We need a plan that is compelling to stakeholders and implementable,” Laurini said.


Next Mars mission is ESA’s ExoMars

Principal Exo Mars Spacecraft Systems Engineer badly needed (see col 1)

ESA’s ExoMars consists of two separate missions to investigate Mars. 

The first, set to launch in January 2016, consists of an orbiter and lander.

Artist’s concept the Trace Gas and Data Relay Orbiter, one component of the 2016 ExoMars mission.Image via ESA

The European Space Agency (ESA) has established the ExoMars program, which consists of two separate missions to investigate the Red Planet orbiting one step outward from Earth, and to test the latest aerospace technology. The first mission, set to launch in 2016, consists of an orbiter and lander. The lander is called Schiaparelli. The second mission, scheduled for 2018, intends to deliver a European rover and a Russian surface platform to Mars’ surface. Both missions share the same main objective: they will search for evidence of methane and other indicators of active biology on Mars.

Scheduled for January 2016, the ESA will launch the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Entry, Decent, and Landing Demonstrator module (EDM, aka Schiaparelli) on a proton rocket. Due to the relative positions Earth and Mars in orbit around the sun at that time, the cruise phase will be a succinct 9 months.

Three days before the modules reach Martian atmosphere, Schiaparelli will eject and land on the planet’s surface.

During its decent to the surface, Schiaparelli will communicate back to the orbiter, which will be positioned in an elliptical orbit around Mars. The module is designed to maximize the use of currently developed technology within the ExoMars program, which includes specially produced thermal protection, a parachute system, a radar Doppler altimeter system, and a liquid propulsion braking system.

Schiaparelli is expected to function on the surface of Mars by utilizing the excess energy capacity of its batteries. While its abilities are limited due to the absence of long-term power, the sensors that will be functional will perform powerful surface observations on its landing site, the Martian plain Meridiani Planum, which is close to the planet’s equator. This area of interest contains an ancient layer of hematite, an iron oxide, which is found in aquatic environments on Earth.

The EDM module is expected to last approximately 2 – 8 days upon landing.

Artist’s concept of ExoMars EDM – aka Schiaparelli – which will enter the Martian atmosphere at an altitude of 75 miles (120 km). The heat shield will protect the lander from the severe heat flux and deceleration from Mach 35 (35 times the speed of sound) to Mach 5.

As soon as the EDM has slowed down to Mach 2 (2 times the speed of sound, for example, the speed of a military fighter aircraft), a parachute will be deployed to further decelerate the lander.

Meanwhile the Trace Gas Orbiter will be observing the atmospheric gases that are present throughout the Martian atmosphere. A key goal of the mission is to gain better insight into the production and release of methane gas, which are present in small concentrations (less than 1% of the atmosphere). As the TGO orbits the red planet it will be able to detect methane, which has been shown to vary in location and time on the planet’s surface. Since methane is short-lived on geological time scales, its presence implies the existence of some kind of active source. And since both geological and biological processes produce methane, that source is of high interest to scientists.

Soaring 250 miles (400 km) above the Martian surface the Orbiter will detect a wide range of gases alongside methane, including water vapor, nitrogen dioxide, and acetylene, with an accuracy three times better than any previous measurements.

The findings will provide evidence regarding the location and sources of these gases, which will lead to selecting the landing sites for the 2018 rover mission.

The ESA’s latest ExoMars mission marks a progressive step toward truly understanding the mysteries of Mars. Constructed with the goal to advance ingenuity and scientific knowledge, the ESA’s mission is sure to lead to exciting results.

By the way, the next NASA mission to Mars won’t be far behind ESA’s ExoMars mission. NASA’s next mission is a stationary lander scheduled to launch in March 2016. The lander – called InSight, for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport – is about the size of a car and will be the first mission devoted to understanding the interior structure of Mars. Read more about Mars InSight here.

ExoMars program 2016. Image via ESA

Bottom line: ESA’s ExoMars consists of two separate missions to investigate Mars. The first, set to launch in January 2016, consists of an orbiter and lander. The lander is called Schiaparelli. The second mission, scheduled for 2018, will deliver a European rover and a Russian surface platform to Mars’ surface. Both missions are aimed at the search for evidence of methane and other indicators of active biological activity on Mars.


Did the earliest Earth collide with a water planet?

If not, whence came an ocean on earth 180 million years after the solar system formed?

By Rick Eyerdam




Their research suggests that the gas giant acted "like a wrecking ball" in the early solar system, obliterating several big, rocky "super-Earths" along the way.


If this is true it answers several lingering questions and one that has not yet been asked. What if one of those big, rocky super Earths was a water planet that smashed into earth as part of the so-called lunar cataclysm, drowning the steaming proto-earth with molecule-rich oceans?





Even the news recyclers at Huffington Post got the message this week. Our solar system is out of whack.


The discovery, as recent as 1990, is but one small part of a cascade of “discoveries” that call into question almost everything we once believed about the construction of planet earth and its neighboring moon.


With the advent of powerful space craft telescopes earth scientists have been sorting through the Milky Way Galaxy and the rest of the nearby universe and finding a remarkable number of rocky planets as part of solar systems, not unlike ours. They have a sun at the center and planets made of rock or gas that orbit that sun.



Researchers at Caltech and the University of California, Santa Cruz, say they've figured out why our solar system is devoid of planets within Mercury's orbit and they are blaming the wanderings of Jupiter for the disorder.


Their research suggests that the gas giant acted "like a wrecking ball" in the early solar system, obliterating several big, rocky "super-Earths" along the way.


If this is true it answers several lingering questions and one that has not yet been asked. What if one of those big, rocky, super Earths was a water planet that smashed into earth as part of the so-called lunar cataclysm, drowning the steaming proto-earth with molecule-rich oceans?


"It appears that the solar system today is not the common representative of the galactic planetary census," Dr. Konstantin Batygin, an assistant professor of planetary science at Caltech and one of the researchers responsible for the new finding, said in a written statement. "But there is no reason to think that the dominant mode of planet formation throughout the galaxy should not have occurred here. It is more likely that subsequent changes have altered its original makeup."


Of course they have. Back in 2006, G. Jeffrey Taylor of the Hawai'i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology suggested that there may have been a dramatic event early in the history of the Solar System--the intense bombardment of the inner planets and the Moon by planetesimals during a narrow interval between 3.92 and 3.85 billion years ago, called the late heavy bombardment, but also nicknamed the lunar cataclysm.


The evidence for this event came from Apollo lunar samples and lunar meteorites, not from observation of distant solar systems, which was impossible at the time.


Taylor said a group of physicists from the Observatoire de la Côte d'Azur (Nice, France), GEA/OV/Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro and Observatório Nacional/MTC (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), and the Southwest Research Institute (Boulder, Colorado) conducted a series of studies of the dynamics of the early Solar System.


 Alessandro Morbidelli, Kleomenis Tsiganis, Rodney Gomes, and Harold Levison simulated the migration of Saturn and Jupiter.


When the orbits of these giant planets reached the special condition of Saturn making one trip around the Sun for every two trips by Jupiter (called the 1:2 resonance), violent gravitational shoves made the orbits of Neptune and Uranus unstable, causing them to migrate rapidly and scatter countless planetesimals throughout the Solar System.


This dramatic event could have happened any time from 200 million years to a billion years after planet formation, causing the lunar cataclysm, which would have affected all the inner planets.


The consensus is that the earth was “formed” about 4.7 billion years ago but was severely battered for about a half billion years including the incident called the lunar cataclysm- the impact of one or more Mars size piles of solar system debris that redefined the face of the Earth and, ultimately spun out into space to form into the moon, as we know it.


This gnashing of moldering planets must have affected all the bodies in the solar system including Mars. And Teresa Sigura (University of Colorado, Boulder) suggest back in 2006 that a cataclysmic bombardment of Mars with icy comets would have added a substantial amount of water to the crust or Mars. It might have triggered the early, wet period in the history of Mars. Each impact might have caused rainy periods, as proposed by Sigura leading to intense erosion of the highlands and deposition into craters that are mostly filled with sediment.


Sigura offered this informed speculation long before Curiosity began roving.


Could the early, wet period on Mars have been caused by the migration of Jupiter and Saturn, Taylor asked.


Of course it could. Taylor’s paper (with link attached) is a brilliant discussion of planetary formation that deserved greater attention at the time. (



But the question that seems to have escaped Taylor then and the Jupiter-as-wrecking-ball crowd now is: what major body smashed into earth, and what was its composition.


Is it possible Saturn already herded a set of moons plump with seawater, covered in ice as is Enceladus or clouds as is Titan? Why would we not consider the possibility that Jupiter was accompanied by a huge orb of water covered by a layer of ice like Europa?


These questions become more important as the evidence builds that Earth may have been able to support life as early as 200 million years after its formation. And each description of the earliest earth includes an era when huge amounts of liquid water – ocean scale – were essential yet unaccounted for.


A study published in Nature in 2001 suggested that strong evidence for liquid water at or near the Earth’s surface 4.3 billion years ago according to a team of scientists in the cover story of the Jan. 11 issue.


The scientists—from UCLA and Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Australia—present research that pushes back our knowledge of the presence of liquid water on Earth some 400 million years.


“We don’t know when life began on Earth yet, but it potentially could have emerged as early as 4.3 billion years ago because we infer that all three required conditions for life existed then,” said T. Mark Harrison, professor of geochemistry at UCLA, who directs UCLA’s W.M. Keck Foundation Center for Isotope Geochemistry, and is a co-author of the Nature paper. “There was a source of energy: the sun; a source of raw minerals: complex organic compounds from meteorites or comets; and our inference that liquid water existed at or near the Earth’s surface. Within 200 million years of the Earth’s formation, all of the conditions for life on Earth appear to have been met.”


Stephen J. Mojzsis, a former UCLA postdoctoral scholar in Harrison’s laboratory, who is now an assistant professor of geology at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the lead author of the Nature paper, goes even further.


Based on their analysis of ancient mineral grains — zircons – they have pushed back to the clock for water and life so far, there is simply not enough time for chemical evolution to take place as described in the Oparin/Haldane scenario.


“The stage was set 4.3 billion years ago for life to emerge on Earth,” said Mojzsis, who is also a member of the University of Colorado’s NASA-funded Astrobiology Institute. “There was probably already in place an Earth with an atmosphere, an ocean, and a stable crust within about two hundred million years of the Earth’s formation.”


“Many geochemists believe that maintaining stable liquid water on a planetary surface that early is the most difficult of the three conditions,” Mojzsis said. “The conditions for life were established very early on Earth.”


The scientists learned that while the rock was deposited about three billion years ago, it contains ancient mineral grains — zircons—that were much older; two of the zircons were 4.3 billion years old, and nearly a dozen others were older than four billion years. The Earth is 4.5 billion years old. In addition, the researchers learned that the zircons contained a unique and revealing ratio of oxygen isotopes.


“We were stunned to discover a very distinctive oxygen isotopic signature in this rock—a rock that significantly predates the Earth’s oxygen atmosphere—which tells us that it interacted with cold water at temperatures appropriate to the Earth’s surface,” Harrison said. “Many scientists did not think rocks older than two billion years could provide this information. Was there liquid water at the Earth’s surface 4.3 billion years ago? We have not had any way to answer that question before until these measurements, which suggest that the answer is yes.”


The telltale sign is the ratio of the very common 16O to the much rarer and heavier 18O. “The ratio of these isotopes reveals whether water has interacted with a rock,” Harrison explained. “If a rock has been to the Earth’s surface and interacted with water, it will be significantly ’heavier’ and more enriched in 18O, which is precisely what we have found in these ancient zircons.”


Zircons are heavy, durable minerals related to the synthetic cubic zirconium used for imitation diamonds and costume jewelry. The zircons studied in the rock are about twice the thickness of a human hair. “These zircons tell us that they melted from an earlier rock that had been to the Earth’s surface and interacted with cold water,” Harrison said. “There is no other known way to account for that heavy oxygen.”


Without the ion microprobe, the scientists would have been able to learn only the average age of the zircons in the rock, not the ages of the various zircons, which varied substantially, the scientists said.


“Zircons are forever,” Harrison noted.


Until now the earth’s timeline ran like this (from WIKI):


•         4,533 Ma: Hadean Eon, Precambrian Supereon and unofficial Cryptic era start as the Earth–Moon system forms, possibly as a result of a glancing collision between proto–Earth and the hypothetical protoplanet Theia. (The Earth was considerably smaller than now, before this impact.) This impact vaporized a large amount of the crust, and sent material into orbit around Earth, which lingered as rings, similar to those of Saturn, for a few million years, until they coalesced to become the Moon.


The Moon geology pre-Nectarian period starts. Earth was covered by a magmatic (molten rock) ocean 200 kilometers (120 mi) deep resulting from the impact energy from this and other planetesimals during the early bombardment phase, and energy released by the planetary core forming.


Outgassing from crustal rocks gives Earth a reducing atmosphere of methane, nitrogen, hydrogen, ammonia, and water vapor, with lesser amounts of hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, then carbon dioxide.


With further full outgassing over 1000–1500 K, nitrogen and ammonia become lesser constituents, and comparable amounts of methane, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, water vapor, and hydrogen are released.


•         4,450 Ma: 100 million years after the Moon formed, the first lunar crust, formed of lunar anorthosite, differentiates from lower magmas. The earliest Earth crust probably forms similarly out of similar material. On Earth the pluvial period starts, in which the Earth's crust cools enough to let oceans form.

          WHAT? To let oceans form from what? Why not assume that oceans just don’t form. Something forms them and the most likely candidate is a collision or set of collisions with – how about Super Earths dislodged by the beginnings of the Jupiter and Saturn migration?


•         4,404 Ma: First known mineral, found at Jack Hills in Western Australia. Detrital zircons show presence of a solid crust and liquid water. Latest possible date for a secondary atmosphere to form, produced by the Earth's crust outgassing, reinforced by water and possibly organic molecules delivered by comet impacts and carbonaceous chondrites (including type CI shown to be high in a number of amino acids and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH)).


•         4,250 Ma: Earliest evidence for life, based on unusually high amounts of light isotopes of carbon, a common sign of life, found in Earth's oldest mineral deposits located in the Jack Hills of Western Australia.


•         3,920–3,850 Ma: Late heavy bombardment of the Moon (and probably of the Earth as well) by bolides and asteroids, produced possibly by the planetary migration of Neptune into the Kuiper belt as a result of orbital resonances between Jupiter and Saturn.[4]

•         3,850 Ma: Greenland apatite shows evidence of 12C enrichment, characteristic of the presence of photosynthetic life.

•         3,850 Ma: Evidence of life: Akilia Island graphite off Western Greenland contains evidence of kerogen, of a type consistent with photosynthesis.

•         3,800 Ma: Oldest banded iron formations found.

•         3,700 Ma: Graphite found to be biogenic in 3.7 billion-year-old metasedimentary rocks discovered in Western Greenland.

However the latest study of the Australian zircon shows that planet earth became habitable to life about 4.4 billion years ago, knocking Oparin/Haldane and chemical evolution for a loop.


Writing on Feb. 23, 2014 journal Nature Geoscience, an international team of researchers led by University of Wisconsin-Madison geoscience Professor John Valley reveals data that confirm the Earth’s crust first formed at least 4.4 billion years ago, just 160 million years after the formation of our solar system. The work shows, Valley says, that the time when our planet was a fiery ball covered in a magma ocean came earlier.


The new study confirms that zircon crystals from Western Australia’s Jack Hills region crystallized 4.4 billion years ago, building on earlier studies that used lead isotopes to date the Australian zircons and identify them as the oldest bits of the Earth’s crust. The microscopic zircon crystal used by Valley and his group in the current study is now confirmed to be the oldest known material of any kind formed on Earth.


The study, according to Valley, strengthens the theory of a “cool early Earth,” where temperatures were low enough for liquid water, oceans and a hydrosphere not long after the planet’s crust congealed from a sea of molten rock. “The study reinforces our conclusion that Earth had a hydrosphere before 4.3 billion years ago,” and possibly life not long after, says Valley.



The study was conducted using a new technique called atom-probe tomography that, in conjunction with secondary ion mass spectrometry, permitted the scientists to accurately establish the age and thermal history of the zircon by determining the mass of individual atoms of lead in the sample. Instead of being randomly distributed in the sample, as predicted, lead atoms in the zircon were clumped together, like “raisins in a pudding,” notes Valley.


The clusters of lead atoms formed 1 billion years after crystallization of the zircon, by which time the radioactive decay of uranium had formed the lead atoms that then diffused into clusters during reheating. “The zircon formed 4.4 billion years ago, and at 3.4 billion years, all the lead that existed at that time was concentrated in these hotspots,” Valley says. “This allows us to read a new page of the thermal history recorded by these tiny zircon time capsules.”


The formation, isotope ratio and size of the clumps — less than 50 atoms in diameter — become, in effect, a clock, says Valley, and verify that existing geochronology methods provide reliable and accurate estimates of the sample’s age. In addition, Valley and his group measured oxygen isotope ratios, which give evidence of early homogenization and later cooling of the Earth.


“The Earth was assembled from a lot of heterogeneous material from the solar system,” Valley explains, noting that the early Earth experienced intense bombardment by meteors, including a collision with a Mars-sized object about 4.5 billion years ago “that formed our moon, and melted and homogenized the Earth. Our samples formed after the magma oceans cooled and prove that these events were very early.”

NASA declares life is everywhere, thus
Telescopes bypass sample return





The dimensions and the consequences of 

NASA’s quest for life in space

by Rick Eyerdam

“Bacteria (single celled microbes) are the dominant form of life on the planet (Earth). There are ten times as many bacterial cells on our skin and in our large intestine as (the total number of) cells in our own body. We are nothing but a source of sustenance for bacteria.”


H. L. Smith: Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Arizona State UniversityTempeAZ

(Note: the brain alone has 86 billion cells.)


“The mathematics of uncontrolled growth are (is) frightening. A single cell of the single cell bacterium E. coli would, under ideal circumstances, divide every twenty minutes. That is not particularly disturbing until you think about it, but the fact is that bacteria multiply geometrically: one becomes two, two become four, four become eight, and so on. In this way it can be shown that in a single day, one cell of E. coli could produce a super-colony equal in size and weight to the entire planet Earth."

Michael Crichton (1969) The Andromeda Strain, Dell, N.Y. p247

(Note: He meant bacteria multiply exponentially and new calculations suggest it would take about two days for E coli to cover the Earth.)




            The truth is that no one who speaks with authority about life on Earth, and certainly no one who speaks about life on Mars or in the rest of space: no one knows enough facts to make an unqualified statement that you could call truth about the dimensions of universal life. The only thing we know for certain is that robust microbes exist everywhere on Earth and they have murdered billions of humans here on Earth and kill thousands every day. And no one knows the potential consequences of interaction with alien microbes. Yet our space program is dead set on finding them and bringing them back to Earth.


Life in space a statistical certainty


            The recent decision by the NASA Administrator to announce Universal Life is the result of a numbers game; a set of circumstantial evidence underlined by probability theory and sustained by statistics that have been augmented over time by new research, increasing evidence, new technology and new players who cannot even remember when all of science was absolutely certain that the Milky Way galaxy made up the entire universe.

            The dimensions of that error are almost impossible to calculate. Recently astronomers with a small telescope in the clear air at the South Pole peeked at one tiny old section of our universe and found 800 trillion suns, some that are 7 billion light years away from our Milky Way spiral galaxy, which is one of trillions of galaxies that comprise the actual universe in which we live.

            The numbers are overwhelming. And so on July 24, 2014, no less a scientist than Charles Bolden, the head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, told a public conference in Washington that there must be life beyond Earth. He said it flat out and without reservations, based on the security of vast numbers.

            “It’s highly improbable in the limitless vastness of the universe that we humans stand alone,” the head of NASA said. And it didn’t make the front pages.

            At that same meeting NASA astronomer Kevin Hand added, “I think in the next 20 years we will find out we are not alone in the universe.”

            "Sometime in the near future, people will be able to point to a star and say, 'that star has a planet like Earth'," Sara Seager, professor of planetary science and physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology added. "Astronomers think it is very likely that every single star in our Milky Way galaxy has at least one planet."

            Based on those predictions, NASA is asserting that there could be 100 million planets within our galaxy alone that could host life as we know it.

            "What we didn't know five years ago is that perhaps 10 to 20 percent of stars around us (in the Milky Way Galaxy) have Earth-size planets in the habitable zone," added MattMountain, director and Webb telescope scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. "It's within our grasp to pull off a discovery that will change the world forever.”

            What would prompt the normally conservative NASA leaders to jump so far off the ledge they have avoided so long? Numbers, and the ever-increasing numerical possibility of a confrontation with exobiology: tiny little life forms that have survived since time was young and adapted and learned to live upon the most basic energy sources available. The numbers tell us they must be out there, some closer than many of us realize. And moons are being added slowly to the long list of lively addresses.

            In 2005 the European Space Agency’s Cassini space probe began studying Saturn, then its dozens of moons. Although neglected for years, a chance sighting of volcanic plumes on the moon Enceladus turned researchers’ attention to the tiny, icy satellite. Over the years Cassini made more than 17 passes through the plumes that turned out to be water ice jets.

            Amazed by water ice jets and interested in their origin, the Cassini Equinox mission was redesigned to make low passes over Enceladus in 2008 and 2009. Using an instrument called a plasma spectrometer, elements in the plumes including gas and dust could be measured and identified. In 2010 the results of the analysis were completed and reported with a whisper. The space probe collected evidence for shirt-lived, negatively charged water ions and negatively charged hydrocarbons. (Negatively charged water ions can be found in familiar places on the surface of Earth, near waterfalls and breaking ocean waves for example.) Due to the presence of the negative ions in Enceladus’ plumes, the Cassini scientists said, there appears to be ongoing processes that could provide a suitable environment for life to evolve under the surface of ice.

             Cassini's instruments also detected carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and various hydrocarbons in the plumes. In 2009, the spacecraft's cosmic dust analyzer found sodium and potassium salts together with carbonates locked in the plumes' icy particles, strengthening the hypothesis that Enceladus hosts a subterranean ocean that may be similar to salt water. Enceladus, as it turns out, offers every condition necessary for life as we know it.

            “While it’s no surprise that there is water there, these short-lived ions are extra evidence for sub-surface water and where there’s water, carbon and energy, some of the major ingredients for life are present,” said Andrew Coates from University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory.

            With so much data available and the power of computing on the cloud, we wonder why NASA cannot work backward from the icy mist to reckon what life forms might have splayed the Encaladus hydrocarbons.


Look, but don’t spend the price of touching


            NASA is already planning to go to an asteroid and bring back some alien microbes, if it can. And it has complex and very expensive plans to send rocket robots to Mars to gather Martian microbes, if they are there, and bring them back to Earth. It is the next big mission on the NASA time line, as inevitable as Gemini and Apollo and Viking, unless the money is diverted to safer, less expensive missions to launch more super telescopes like the Kepler and the Spitzer Space telescopes that look but don’t touch.

            One team longs for landings and samples.  The other wants NASA resources and effort directed to the launch of the Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite (TESS) in 2017, the James Webb Space Telescope (Webb Telescope) in 2018, and perhaps the proposed Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope - Astrophysics Focused Telescope Assets (WFIRST-AFTA) early in the next decade.

            Instead of looking for microbe exobiology these upcoming telescopes will find and characterize large things including new exoplanets -- those planets that orbit other stars -- searching for oceans and water signs in the form of atmospheric water vapor and for life as indicated by carbon dioxide, methane and other atmospheric chemicals. But they could discover more.


Life above the microbial level: Carl Sagan called them Macrobes


            Just a month before the July Washington revelation, on June 9, 2014Cornell University reported that there are 100 million places in the Milky Way galaxy that could support complex life, according to new research by its astronomers. They have developed a new computation method to examine data from planets orbiting other stars in the universe, the statement said.

            Their study provides the first quantitative estimate of the number of worlds in our galaxy that could harbor life above the microbial level, they said. That escalation from microbes to “above the microbial level” is important beyond imagining, but not for the near future.

            "This study does not indicate that complex life exists on that many planets. We're saying that there are planetary conditions that could support it. Origin of life questions are not addressed -- only the conditions to support life," according to the paper's authors Alberto Fairén, Cornell research associate; Louis Irwin, University of Texas at El Paso (lead author); Abel Méndez, University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo; and Dirk Schulze-Makuch, Washington State University.

            The key phrases in all of this discussion are “origin of life questions,” and “chemical evolution” and “life as we know it.”

            NASA’s Viking landers went to Mars in 1976 looking for life “as we know it,” without a solid idea of the extant variety of microbial life on Earth or its robust potential. Viking’s Labeled Release experiment nevertheless offered basic food stuff – all foods are chemicals- to Mars dirt with a seasoning of radiation to trace any reaction.  It waited a while for digestion to take place Then it sampled the atmosphere in the sealed container. There, as predicted, meaningful levels of the decomposed food with a radioactive signature were detected as a gas by a simple beta radiation counter. As a control, the experiment, called Gulliver, over-heated a duplicate sample, tested it and saw no response – dead.  Then, as any important experiment should be, it was repeated -  successfully. Whatever was in the Mars dirt ate nutrients and gave off a signature of radioactive gas. Case closed.

            Dr. Gerald Soffen, the chief Viking scientist said at the time in an interview with the author that NASA should concede Gulliver found evidence of life on Mars, but would wait for the discovery of water on Mars and carbon and other elements necessary for life as we know it to say Gulliver found proof of life on Mars. While water was discovered during his lifetime, organics were not clearly identified until December of 2014.

            He admitted, however, “I think none of us have really come to grips with the ultimate question of what do we mean by life. What do we really mean by life? What is it you are looking for in the first place? It is as though you are saying we will know it when we see it but we are not sure what we are looking for. That is a very strange thing to say for somebody who has been hunting now for a long time. But I think the straightforward fact is that at this point in the 20th century (1976) we probably don’t know what life is.”


Life as we know it


            In 2010, research conducted by biochemist Dr. Felisa Wolfe-Simon, then working for the U.S. Geological Survey, challenged the foundations of life as we know it. After a two-year study involving bacteria extracted from the mud of California's Mono Lake, near Yosemite National Park, Wolfe-Simon first reported in Science that the microbe, GFAJ-1, will grow in the presence of the toxic chemical arsenic, substituting it for phosphorous in its DNA when only slight traces of phosphorous are present.

            Molecular biologist Steven Benner, who is part of NASA's "Team Titan" and an expert on astrobiology said at the time the organism at Mono Lake grew without high levels of the essential nutrient phosphate (although some phosphates were still present). While bacteria have been found in hellish environments on Earth and others have been found that can consume what other life finds poisonous, this bacterial strain has actually taken arsenic on board in its cellular machinery to use it in place of phosphorus, a molecule with properties similar to arsenic, he said.

            Arsenic is poisonous to nearly all forms of life on Earth. Even small amounts of the poison become embedded in living tissue, causing renal failure and ultimately death -- in nearly everything but these bacteria. The bacteria were found as part of a relatively new hunt on Earth for life forms radically different from life as we know it.

            Since the GFAJ-1 paper was published further research has concluded that the underlying, life-changing assertion that the microbe substituted arsenic for phosphorus is probably not correct. Yes the microbe GFAJ-1 survived in a world dominated by arsenic where very little phosphorus was present. No, there is no solid evidence so far that the microbe found a way to replace the phosphorus it needed to assemble its DNA with the similar scaffolding available in otherwise lethal arsenic.

            William Bains is a British biotech researcher. He offered this insight in the January 2014 edition of Chemistry World:

            “GFAJ-1 illustrates the problem that any trembling PhD student entering their viva will know. The scientist is an expert on their experiments, but they do not necessarily know the broader scientific context, or what standards of proof are expected of them. This situation is amplified when work bridges fields: a narrow, detailed training in one area does not give a deep understanding of the nature of evidence in another. Proof for a chemist requires different data and arguments than proof for a physicist. Neither is ‘better’: each is suited to the theory and understanding of its respective domain. The problems arise when geochemists try to make breakthroughs in biochemistry, biochemists in physics and so on. Obvious, perhaps, but in multidisciplinary research it becomes a major problem,” he wrote.

            He added, “For the geochemists and physicists who wrote and reviewed the (GFAJ-1) paper, the idea that arsenic could substitute for phosphorus is unexceptional. It happens all the time in geology – why not DNA as well as rocks?”

            Bains suggests science begins to lose its edge when the research involves team members from different disciplines. “Of course, all new science is multidisciplinary and always has been. And a rising tide of reports suggests that the scientific community is not just struggling to identify what is good science in nascent, niche fields like astrobiology, but in mainstream subjects.”

            Paul Davies, the Arizona State University and NASA Astrobiology Institute researcher who co-authored the GFAJ-1 paper confessed at the time, "At the moment we have no idea if life is just a freak, bizarre accident which is confined to Earth or whether it is a natural part of a fundamentally biofriendly universe in which life pops up wherever there are Earth-like conditions."


Life pops up?


            The idea that “life pops up” as a result of inevitable chemical evolution is the heart (if not the soul) of the search for alien life on Earth and beyond. And the creation and evolution of that study – exobiology -  is the central theme of the science history book Inside NASA’s quest for life in space. Today the concept that the chemical evolution of non-life can result in the emergence of something living is so fundamental that “understanding the process of chemical evolution or the origin of life,” is the base line standard goal for astrobiological missions to Mars and beyond.  Creation is considered hokum. Life began when special chemicals were charged by some power source including volcanic heat or lightening, billions and billions of times over again until somehow molecules formed into living microbes.

            The proposition was stated elegantly by George Wald back in 1955 when it first gained popularity. "The important point is that since the origin of life belongs in the category of at-least-once phenomena, time is on its side. However improbable we regard this event...given enough time it will almost certainly happen at least once... Time is in fact the hero of the plot. The time with which we have to deal is of the order of two billion years. What we regard as impossible on the basis of human experience is meaningless here. Given so much time, the 'impossible' becomes possible, the possible probable, and the probable virtually certain. One has only to wait: time itself performs miracles."

            The dogma of inevitable chemical evolution constrains everything we do that involves the search for life in space. The manual the engineers and scientists must follow when building machines to search for life as we know it beyond Earth is a lecture in the most complex levels of reconciling engineering to the demands of sterilization, whether they are followed or not.

            The Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) of the International Council for Science describes five categories of sterilization for interplanetary missions, and there are suggested ranges of planetary protection requirements for each category, the guidelines state:

•           “Category I includes any mission to a target body that is not of direct interest for understanding the process of chemical evolution or the origin of life; no protection of such bodies is warranted, and no planetary protection requirements are imposed by COSPAR policy.


•           Category II missions are missions whose target (heavenly) bodies are of significant interest relative to the process of chemical evolution and the origin of life but in which there is only a remote chance that contamination carried by a spacecraft could jeopardize future exploration. COSPAR requires only simple documentation that includes preparation of a short planetary protection plan in the form of an outline of intended or potential impact targets, brief pre- and post-launch analyses detailing impact strategies, and a post-encounter and end-of-mission report providing the location of impact, if such an event occurs. 


•           Category III missions (mostly flyby and orbiter missions) are missions to a target body of chemical evolution and/or origin-of-life interest or for which scientific opinion indicates that there is a significant chance of contamination that could jeopardize a future biological experiment. COSPAR requires documentation of planetary protection issues and some implementation of protection procedures that include at a minimum trajectory biasing, the use of clean rooms during spacecraft assembly and testing, and possibly spacecraft bio-burden reduction. An inventory of bulk constituent organics is required if the probability of impact is significant.


•           Category IV missions (mostly probe and lander missions) target a body of chemical evolution and/or origin-of life-interest or for which scientific opinion indicates that there is a significant chance of contamination that could jeopardize future biological experiments. COSPAR requires detailed documentation of planetary protection issues, including a bioassay to enumerate spacecraft bio-burden, an analysis of the probability of contamination that may include trajectory biasing, use of clean rooms during spacecraft assembly, bio-load reduction, partial sterilization of any direct contact hardware, and a bio-shield for that hardware. The requirements and compliance are similar to those imposed for the Viking missions, with the exception of lander or probe sterilization.

            Thus instead of Viking-style sterilization Curiosity was sterilized sufficient to prevent earth microbe interference with its experiments and ordered to stay away from newly declared “hot spots” on Mars where a nuclear accident might endanger the native biota.

•           Category V comprises all return-to-Earth missions, where the concern is the protection of the terrestrial system comprising the Earth and the Moon. The Moon must be protected from back-contamination to retain freedom from planetary protection requirements for Earth-Moon travel. For solar system bodies deemed by scientific opinion to have no indigenous life forms, an “unrestricted Earth return” subcategory is defined. Missions in this subcategory have planetary protection requirements on the outbound phase only that correspond to the category of that phase (typically category I or II). For all other category V missions, in a subcategory defined as “restricted Earth return,” the highest degree of concern is expressed by the absolute prohibition of destructive impact upon return, the need for containment throughout the return phase of all returned hardware which directly contacted the target body or unsterilized material from the body, and the need for containment of any unsterilized sample collected and returned to Earth.”

            The standard that is expected to be in place for all microbe sample return missions is advocated by the European Science Foundation. It says, “The probability that a single unsterilized particle of 10 nanometers or greater in diameter is released into the Earth environment shall be less than 10 to the 6th power.”

            According to the most recent NASA documents, “The ESF study confirmed that a probability of ‘1 in a million’ is a level of risk consistent with a range of other significant societal risks, and recommended that this level be accepted as the requirement for containment of particles of Martian material brought deliberately to Earth.”

            While we are planning to dissect alien life once it is safely secured, the latest gathering of Mars experts is still foundering. On July 24, 2014 at the conclusion of Eighth International Conference on Mars the attendees agreed that scientists found themselves asking the same questions they had been chasing for decades.

            “There’s a lot of knowledge and not so much understanding,” Phil Christensen, a Mars geologist at Arizona State University in Tempe told a reporter. “The devil continues to be in the details.”

            NASA’s astrobiology cannon is based on the theory of chemical evolution as espoused first in the 1930’s and developed into the 1960’s. A groundswell of astronomical research suggested that the universe is filled with the same basic gases and elements that are key to life on Earth. Other research at the University of Chicago had found those same gases could be stimulated in a laboratory to form complex molecules similar to the molecules that are essential for the life in a cell.

            Curiosity’s original mission to identify signs of ancient life was overruled and restricted because of its limited decontamination and radioactivity.. Curiosity’s operators were warned to avoid water and any place where extant life might be lurking. The one-year mission of the Curiosity Rover on Mars was limited to determining if the area around its landing site — Gale Crater — had ever been capable of supporting microbial life (as we know it.) “Yes,” the 1-ton rover said, absolutely YES; just seven months after touching down and after roving only a few hundred yards.

            Curiosity’s Chemistry & Mineralogy (CheMin) and Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instruments found what NASA said were most of the chemical ingredients considered essential for life including sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon. The mix of compounds suggested that the area that was first examined in Gale Crater at Rocknest on Oct. 17, 2012 may have contained chemical energy sources for potential Mars microbes, the researchers said.

            From October through June of 2013 Curiosity was also sniffing for methane in the Gale Crater atmosphere, a sign of either microbe digestion or, less likely, geochemical activity. In September of 2013 NASA reported finding no signs of methane. According to NASA,   Curiosity analyzed samples of the Martian atmosphere for methane six times from October 2012 through June and detected none. Given the sensitivity of the instrument used, the Tunable Laser Spectrometer, and not detecting the gas, scientists calculated the amount of methane in the Martian atmosphere must be no more than 1.3 parts per billion, which is about one-sixth as much as some earlier estimates.

            Details of the findings were published in Science Express.

            "It would have been exciting to find methane, but we have high confidence in our measurements, and the progress in expanding knowledge is what's really important," said the report's lead author, Chris Webster of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in PasadenaCalif. "We measured repeatedly from Martian spring to late summer, but with no detection of methane."

            NASA hoped to get this methane discussion resolved before the ExoMars mission arrived. The Europeans and Russians have staked a strong claim to this organic discovery. Concentrations of methane were recorded in 2003 and 2006 by their orbiter in three specific regions of Mars: Terra Sabae, Nili Fossae and Syrtis Major, and data suggest that water once flowed over these areas.

            The ExoMars program co-operated by Russia and the European Space Agency is seeking further confirmation of the methane that the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS) on ESA's Mars Express and the very high spectral resolution spectrometers on ground-based telescopes have detected in the atmosphere of Mars. 

            According to its publicists, the scientific objectives of the ExoMars program 2016-2018 include: searching for signs of past and present life on Mars, studying the water and geochemical environment as a function of depth in the shallow subsurface, and investigating Martian atmospheric trace gases and their sources.

            To achieve these objectives, ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, to be launched to Mars in 2016, will measure and map methane and other important trace gases with high sensitivity to provide insights into the nature of the source through the study of gas ratios and isotopes, they say.

            The 2018 ESA ExoMars Rover will search for two types of life signatures, morphological and chemical, with an accurate study of the geological context. Morphological information related to biological processes may be preserved on the surface of rocks or under the surface.  The ExoMars drill has been designed to penetrate the surface and obtain samples from well-consolidated (hard) formations, at various depths, down to 2 metres. And 2018 is right around the corner.

            The US MAVEN mission to Mars arrived in September, 2014, just in time to duck the Siding Spring meteor. MAVEN is an orbiter that can also look for methane while it studies the Martian atmosphere and serves as a relay for the several rovers still operating on Mars.

            However, not long after MAVEN arrived at Mars, NASA scientists at Goddard Space Flight Center and the JPL team lead by John Grotzinger dropped a major bombshell declaring that they had indeed discovered and analyzed a significant methane spike near the rover in Gale Crater. They also began publishing a set or remarkable papers offering scientific proof that the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite on NASA's Curiosity rover has made the first definitive detection of organic molecules at Mars.

            In October of 2013 NASA had reported that perchlorates and chlorinated hydrocarbons were detected by SAM after long months of processing the data from the samples at Rocknest. But the samples were tainted by a leak within the SAM sample manipulation system of the reagent MTBSTFA. The MTBSTFA stored on board was supposed to be secured in five sealed cups until one could be mixed with a robust soil sample to reduce larger organics including amino acids for low temperature processing in SAM. This was the tool to avoid pyrolitic examination.

            The scientists used a bank of laboratory analog experiments on earth that suggested that the reaction of Martian chlorine from perchlorate decomposition with terrestrial organic carbon from the MTBSTFA during pyrolysis can explain the presence of three chloromethanes and a chloromethylpropene detected by SAM.

            While their paper said there was “No definitive evidence of Martian organic carbon at the Rocknest carbon source for these chlorinated hydrocarbons,” other laboratory work was suggesting a more positive outcome for martian soil dug at Yellowknife. Hence the paper added, “ nor do we exclude the possibility that future SAM analyses will reveal the presence of organic compounds native to the Martian regolith.”

            Later, working with the Rocknest tainted samples, then the samples from Yellowknife over the span of 12 months, a huge team of scientists devised a way to work around the contamination in the spaceship laboratory and duplicate the contamination in labs on earth. Once they were certain about the level and nature of the MTBSTFA vapors and their impact on sample analysis, they published a set of definitive conclusions. Yes there are organic molecules native to Martian soil. And, yes there is methane being released on Mars.

            "That we detect methane in the atmosphere on Mars is not an argument that we have found evidence of life on Mars, but it is one of the few hypotheses that we can propose that we must consider as we go forward in the future," Dr. John Grotzinger, Curiosity project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, said on Dec. 16 in a news briefing at the American Geophysical Union's convention in San Francisco.

            "It's a big day for us - it's a kind of crowning moment of 10 years of hard work - where we report there is methane in the atmosphere and there are also organic molecules in abundance in the sub-surface," Grotzinger said.

            It took two years to determine that only some of the organics were not brought to Mars by the Curiosity lander, an unfortunate calamity averted by the rare and unique chemistry of MTBSTFA. Nevertheless early on, in April 2014 project scientist Grotzinger proposed a more lively extension of the mission.

            “The MSL mission appears to be on the cusp of evolving from a mission, “initially seeking to understand the habitability of ancient Mars (and doing it successfully), to one focused on developing predictive models for the preservation of Martian organic matter. This is not just important for the continued success of MSL, but also for the proposed Mars 2020 mission, which would seek to find promising materials for possible return to Earth. We intend to apply this developing exploration paradigm in searching for organics at Mt. Sharp,” Grotzinger wrote.

            However, spanked by the NASA Planetary Science Mission Review panel for insufficient science and for missing their meeting, Grotzinger agreed in June, 2014 to take over the Geological and Planetary Science Division at Caltech, leaving behind his role as project scientist for MSL.  

            “Our mission is turning a corner,” Grotzinger said on the way out the door. “We are beginning to map a way forward, a way to explore deliberately for organic matter.”


The fight against sterilization


            For 60 years geologists and planetary scientists have argued against spacecraft sterilization for missions to Mars. Bruce Murray, years before he took over Jet Propulsion Laboratory, wrote papers critical of the exobiologists including Dr. Joshua Lederberg and Carl Sagan, accusing them of “transscience.” Murray insisted they misunderstood “the significance of their observations,” because they would not agree with the negative results of the first three JPL Mariner Mars flyby missions. There is much about that in this book.

            A pet project of Murray, the cameras on Mariner 4 showed a small blurry patch of Mars that looked as dead as the Moon. Early atmospheric data suggested that running water could not exist on Mars because of its thin atmosphere. Soon after Mariner 4, Murray and Caltech’s biology professor, Dr. Norman Horowitz, called for an end to the bioburden reduction treatment before the Viking mission because, he said, the potential for life on Mars did not justify the cost. In the end, the exobiologists won for the Viking Mission, but no mission after Viking has been so treated.

            Considering the costly decontamination of Mars or other extraterrestrial expeditions, it makes no sense to NASA budget builders to do anything but plan. No one on Earth can afford the basics, let alone the equipment necessary to decontaminate the lander on Mars, decontaminate the return container, the return vehicle, the reentry vehicle, and the Earth-based equipment that would handle the returned sample at the levels required by the rules: One-in-a-million chance of microbial contamination.

            Yet the Mars 2020 lander, unveiled in July of 2014 has a contingency plan to store the core samples it collects for future delivery to Earth. And the Mars 2020 experiments are planned to reduce the ambiguity inherent in the data reported by Curiosity. Two different experiments using different techniques will analyze the key samples of Martian regolith for organic matter. Scientists on Earth will compare the results, as they have with the SAM samples. The key effort to reduce ambiguity is the decision to eliminate the destruction of samples by intense heat, called pyrolization, as a step in analyzing the samples.

            In the GCMS on Viking and Curiosity, samples were vaporized; reduced to their most basic elements by pyrolization and then examined in a spectrometer. The Viking gas chromatograph mass spectrometer (GCMS) required the organic matter contained in about one million Earth microbes in order to detect organics. Since Viking, it has been learned that the heat (500 deg. C) applied to pyrolyze the samples prior to analysis would have destroyed any organic matter present, leaving virtually nothing to examine and report. But the Viking GCMS did report chloromethanes that were considered to be terrestrial contaminants, although they had not been detected at those levels in the blank runs.

            Curiosity’s scientists also suggest strongly that perchlorate is abundant in the Martian regolith based on experiments by the Phoenix Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer and those of Curiosity. They suggest the it is likely perchlorate was abundant at the Viking lander sites to confuse the Viking GCMS into concluding that it had detected no organics when in fact there could have been parts per million levels of Martian organic carbon at the Viking landing sites based on the abundances of chloromethanes detected after pyrolysis of the Viking soils.

            If that is the case, then the last straw has been broken in the opposition to the positive results of Gulliver, the labeled release experiment that found evidence of microbial activity on Mars in 1976.


Telescopes win the numbers game


            The annunciation of the cosmic life calculations this past July by NASA is the declaration of victory by statistical fiat. The announcement that life must exist everywhere means that the astronomers have won this round in the 60 year competition that began with the exobiologists, swung to the engineers, veered to the planetary scientists and created a coalition that could accommodate both Bruce Murray and Carl Sagan in similar roles and in similar goals of using remote sensors – souped up telescopes - to go searching for places where life ought to be, then sniffing for geochemical signatures.

            When NASA conceded in July that life must be everywhere it set aside the urgency of actually discovering another example of alien life on Mars or elsewhere that would require a sample return for confirmation. And the core sample scenario as early as Mars 2020 is nothing more than a wish at this time. Instead, NASA has stated that it will search for planets like Earth and study them with ever more powerful telescopes. We cannot afford the far more expensive alternative of sending men to Mars to identify a microbe and return it safely to Earth.   

The other choice beyond Creation is the solution now offered by NASA: The galaxy is filled with life. The universe is filled with life and time. Later we will find out where it began. In the mean time, the children live here on Earth building better telescopes and larger rocket engines, waiting cautiously to meet their ancestors.