To read in any language click here,
 go to translation page and type
 www.geeksonmars.com
Marsnow. info
 

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."

 

 

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.