Mars Exploration: 'Something Wonderful Is About To Happen'
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MARS: A WATER WORLD? EVIDENCE MOUNTS, BUT SCIENTISTS REMAIN TIGHT-LIPPED
By Leonard David
February 29, 2004
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.
There is no doubt that the Opportunity Mars rover is relaying a mother lode
of geological data. Using an array of tools carried by the golf cart-sized
robot -- from spectrometers, a rock grinder, cameras and powerful
microscopic imager -- scientists are carefully piecing together a compelling
historical portrait of a wet and wild world.
Where Opportunity now roves, some scientists here suggest, could have been
underneath a huge ocean or lake. But 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 -- but given unanimity among
rover scientists and agreement on how and who should unveil the dramatic
findings. Turns out, even on Mars, a political and ego outcrop hangs over
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.
Brew of dissolved salts
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.
Opportunity has revisited select spots in the outcrop, drawn there, in part,
to look for cross-beds -- sedimentary deposits that are formed in beach,
river and sand-dune environments. Using its Rock Abrasion Tool (RAT), the
rover has carried out several cleaning and grinding sessions on exposed rock
Cross-beds are patterns of curving lines or traces found within the strata
of sandstone and other sedimentary rocks. Cross-bedding indicates the
general direction and force of the wind or water that originally laid down
Right around the corner
Opportunity's research is a "work in progress", said Ray Arvidson, deputy
principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) project from
Washington University in St. Louis. Data is being gathered to present "a
coherent story", he said during a press briefing last Thursday.
"That story is right around the corner," Arvidson told SPACE.com . "But we
need to finish this work in progress, finish the set of experiments, get the
data down from the spacecraft, processed and analyzed. Then I think that the
story will be known," he said.
Arvidson said multiple working hypotheses are still at play. Water is
involved, but only on some of the hypotheses. Until coordinated experiments
on the outcrop are completed, what the right hypothesis is remains unknown,
Severing the umbilical cord
Mars exploration using the rovers has allowed on-the-spot "discovery driven
science", said MER Deputy Project Scientist Albert Haldeman. He likened the
Mars robot work now underway to deep ocean research using remotely operated
"It turns out that the best way to explore rocks [on Mars] is go look at
craters. Mobility buys us the ability to do that. It was the right fit for
looking at rocks," Haldeman told SPACE.com . "The discovery from the
Microscopic Imager and seeing those spherulesand finding a larger
population of spherules and seeing them in the rocks and the outcropthat
progression of discovery influences our thinking."
Haldeman said the next step will be severing the umbilical cord between
Opportunity and the crater it's exploring. The robot would wheel itself out
of that site and onto the expansive terrain of Meridiani Planum.
"That umbilical cordthat's hard to break. It's more than even just a
tension within the science team," Haldeman said.
Scientists are carefully analyzing the rock data gleaned by the Opportunity
rover. "We really want to understand that we've got those figured out
right," Haldeman said. Up to now they have offered some "tantalizing hints",
he said, that speak to a possible relationship with water.
Piecing together the story of what Opportunity has found involves great care
and deliberation, Haldeman said, based on a wide-range of viewpoints and
levels of expertise. "We want to be cautious," he explained.
More to the point, the science output from Mars must withstand scrutiny by
experts outside the rover investigation teams.
"There are lots of geologists out there who are looking at these pictures
and they are starting to drool," Haldeman said. "The American taxpayer that
spent $800 million on this deserves a thorough analysis," Haldeman said.
Slippery slope leading to life
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.
In 1997, Levin reported that simple laws of physics require water to occur
as a liquid on the surface of Mars. Subsequent experiments and research have
bolstered this view, he said, and reaffirms his Viking LR data regarding
microbial life on Mars.
Levin detailed his Mars views in a SPACE.com phone interview and via email.
"It's hard to image why such bullet-proof evidence was denied for such a
long time, and why those so vigorously denying it never did so by meeting
the science, but merely by brushing it away," Levin said.
"Of course, now that it must be acknowledged by all that there is liquid
water on the surface of Mars," Levin added, "this starts those denying the
validity of the Mars LR data down the slippery slope leading to life."
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
As for the spherical objects found at the Opportunity site, Levin has a
"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
"Maybe these little spherules form just like raindrops form up above," Levin
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.
"That's the monument that they are afraid to erect without real due
process," Levin concluded.
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