Monday, March 01, 2004

Mars probe Opportunity -- plop into a martian swamp?

Mars: A Water World? Evidence Mounts, But Scientists Remain Tight-Lipped

[UPDATE: unless you're a geologist, the actual news conference on 3/2/04 was a bit of a downer for we overly exciteable space nuts. There was lots of water at the landing site .... once.]
PASADENA, California -- Evidence that suggests Mars was once a water-rich world is mounting as scientists scrutinize data from the Mars Exploration rover, Opportunity, busily at work in a small crater at Meridiani Planum. That information may well be leading to a biological bombshell of a finding that the red planet has been, and could well be now, an extraterrestrial home for life.

There is a palpable buzz here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California that something wonderful is about to happen in the exploration of Mars.

... what has truly been uncovered by the robot at Meridiani Planum is under judicious and tight-lipped review.

Those findings and their implications are headed for a major press conference, rumored to occur early next week ...

It is clear that Opportunity's Earth-to-Mars hole in one -- bouncing into a small crater complete with rock outcrop -- has also proven to be a scientific bulls-eye. The robot is wheeling about the crater that is some 70 feet (22 meters) across and 10 feet (3 meters) deep.

It is also apparent that there is a backlog of scientific measurements that Mars rover scientists working Opportunity have pocketed and kept close to their lab coats.

For one, the rover found the site laden with hematite -- a mineral that typically, but not always -- forms in the presence of water. Then there are the puzzling spherules found in the soil and embedded in rock. They too might be water-related, but also could be produced by the actions of a meteor impact or a spewing volcano.

A few spheres have been sliced in half and their insides imaged. Patches of these spherules, or "berries" as some call them, have undergone spectrometer exam to discern their mineral and chemistry makeup. Close-up photos of soil and rock have also shown thread-like features and even an oddly shaped object that looks like Rotini pasta

There is speculation that the soil underneath the wheels of both Spirit and Opportunity rovers contains small amounts of water mixed with salt in a brine. That brew of dissolved salts keeps the mixture well below the freezing point of pure water, permitting it to exist in liquid form...

... One scientist eagerly awaiting the news from Mars, particularly from Opportunity, is Gilbert Levin. He is Chairman of the Board and Executive Officer for Science of Spherix Incorporated in Beltsville, Maryland.

Levin is a former Viking Mars lander investigator. He has long argued that his 1976 Viking Labeled Release (LR) life detection experiment found living microorganisms in the soil of Mars....

Levin points to Opportunity imagery that offers conclusive proof of standing liquid water and running water on a cold Mars. 

Other images show the rover tracks clearly are being made in "mud", with water being pressed out of that material, Levin said. "That water promptly freezes and you can see reflecting ice. That's clearly ice. It could be nothing else," he said, "and the source is the water that came out of the mud."

As for the spherical objects found at the Opportunity site, Levin has a thought.

"I wonder on Mars if it can rain upwards," he said. The idea is that subsurface water comes up through the soils and then freezes when it gets to the surface.

"Maybe these little spherules form just like raindrops form up above," Levin explained.

Levin said that brine on Mars is a code word for liquid water. He senses that great care is being taken by rover scientists because the liquid water issue starts the road to life.

The author of this article is rather excited. He's on the verge of declaring that Opportunity is sitting atop a Martian swamp infested with extremophile bacteria. We'll see soon enough if Levin receives a vindication rare in history.

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