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Space Science

Mars Rover Sniffs First Hint of Water? 479

Posted by simoniker
from the probing-in-the-rain dept.
mhw25 writes "It is reported that the Mars rover Spirit is already well into its scientific mission, and may be detecting hints of water. The mini-Thermal Emission Spectrometer has returned its first image, with probable evidence of carbonates and hydrated minerals. We may know more after the rover rolls off its landing base, after making a 120 degree turn to avoid the airbag blocking its front ramp, to start analyses on soil from Thursday or Friday. An ongoing intrigue is already developing - a scientist reckoned that some of the soil around the airbag 'looks like mud, but it can't be mud'."
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Mars Rover Sniffs First Hint of Water?

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  • Culture (Score:5, Funny)

    by grub (11606) <slashdot@grub.net> on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:33PM (#7956050) Homepage Journal

    Where there is water, there may also be a brewery. These Martians may be eons ahead of us..
  • intrigue (Score:5, Interesting)

    by BWJones (18351) * on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:33PM (#7956057) Homepage Journal
    An ongoing intrigue is already developing - a scientist reckoned that some of the soil around the airbag'looks like mud, but it can't be mud'."

    In a bioengineering course I took once we were playing around with various materials prior to creating various cements and I found that many very fine grained ultra dry powders exhibited qualities one might presume were qualities exhibited in mud. Specifically, the appearance of folding up in waves like there were some bonding force holding things together when pushed. Applying various degrees of static charges to the materials appeared to amplify these effects allowing for clumping as well.

    I am curious though as to why they dont think it could be mud if they are indeed suspicious of water being present?

    • Re:intrigue (Score:3, Informative)

      by therealcaf (697590)
      "I am curious though as to why they dont think it could be mud if they are indeed suspicious of water being present?"

      because as far as we can tell water cant exist in a liquid state on mars.
      • Re:intrigue (Score:5, Insightful)

        by BWJones (18351) * on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:42PM (#7956193) Homepage Journal
        because as far as we can tell water cant exist in a liquid state on mars.

        Ah, but how much water is the question. Certainly atmospheric pressures would indicate that large volumes of water may not be possible unless they were seeping or somehow otherwise protected from atmospheric effects. So, a correlative question might also be, how much water would be required for particle wetting to provide enough cohesiveness? I don't really know and my background is not in materials science but if the dust particles were small enough, perhaps a few water molecules could provide enough van der walls forces to hold the material together enough to resemble mud?

        • Re:intrigue (Score:4, Insightful)

          by GabeK (701376) * on Monday January 12, 2004 @05:05PM (#7956479) Homepage
          I'm guessing that its more of a simple issue of temperature. The rover is currently operating in -19degs F.
          • Re:intrigue (Score:5, Funny)

            by DrSkwid (118965) on Monday January 12, 2004 @05:39PM (#7956893) Homepage Journal
            that's 264.8175 k (-8.3324999999996 C) for those that don't like their temperatures defined as :

            0 F is the stabilized temperature when equal amounts of ice, water, and salt are mixed and 96 F is the temperature "when the thermometer is held in the mouth or under the armpit of a living man in good health."

    • I think the speculation is that trace amounts of water would be present. Or that it would be locked away in rocks. If it was mud that would mean lots of water.
    • Re:intrigue (Score:4, Informative)

      by Cosmonut (706410) on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:38PM (#7956135)
      The low air pressure and the low temperatures in Gusev would seem to rule out liquid water. It's more likely (in my opinion) that what they're seeing is clay, which would have the water chemically bound. Although, as you stated, it's also possible that it's composed of statically-charged Martian fines.
      • Re: clay? (Score:3, Informative)

        by FunkyRat (36011)
        Could possibly be clay. The Mini-TES website [asu.edu] at Arizona State University has some slides of Mini-TES data. In this [asu.edu] particular slide they're showing an unidentified mineral that definitely looks like it has bound water.
    • Re:intrigue (Score:5, Insightful)

      by NanoGator (522640) on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:41PM (#7956182) Homepage Journal
      "I am curious though as to why they dont think it could be mud if they are indeed suspicious of water being present?"

      Nasa doesn't like to operate that way. They don't want to finger a suspect and look at only proof that it's what they're after. Instead, they want to look at all the data and try to learn everything they can.

      Seems to me they're just avoiding being overly zealous in their approach. In the process of proving something does exist, you risk avoiding the evidence that it doesn't.
    • Re:intrigue (Score:3, Informative)

      by jest3r (458429)
      Because the surface air temperature is never above freezing (usually between -40 to -60 degrees.)

      surface temp graph [nasa.gov]

      • Re:intrigue (Score:3, Insightful)

        by BWJones (18351) *
        Because the surface air temperature is never above freezing (usually between -40 to -60 degrees.)

        But how many water molecules do you need for ice crystal formation? Also atmospheric pressures are low indicating much liquid water would sublimate rather quickly. However if there were just a few water molecules interspersed relatively uniformly amongst the dust particles you might not get ice formation per se. Rather you might get an extra degree of molecular bonding allowing for a cohesiveness of fine gr
      • Re:intrigue (Score:5, Informative)

        by Fr33z0r (621949) on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:58PM (#7956408)
        That's misinformed, that's the temperature ~1m above the surface, the surface temperature does indeed rise above zero, and I believe has been since before Spirit landed

        Real surface temp graph [asu.edu]
        • Re:intrigue (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Fr33z0r (621949)
          I neglected to mention, there's also the possibility of salts in the water, if it's salty, it wouldn't need to get up to zro to melt, and it would have a larger window before succumbing to the low atmospheric pressure and boiling off.
        • by mr_luc (413048) on Monday January 12, 2004 @06:00PM (#7957102)
          . . . I am very interested in eventually moving to Mars. It would be a bonus if there were lakes, so I could go ice fishing, but you can get the full "ice fishing experience" without them.

          My real question, as someone who has camped outdoors in very cold temperatures, is this: could the combination of a shallow (half-meter) trench, a heavy-duty lean-to, and a heavy-duty sealed winter sleeping back (along with oxygen, of course) get one through the night?

          Also, as Minnesotans are well-known for their masochistic, 'can-do' approach to weathering winter weather, are there any Minnesotans planned for the manned Mars mission?
          • From Minnesota (Score:3, Interesting)

            by thoolie (442789)
            Yes, you could get by in a VERY warm sleeping bag up there in THEORY, but I don't think you are going to find one on earth capable of withholding that much of your thermal energy. You could build a mud hut, similar to an igloo, build a fire inside, and then camp out in your sleeping bag. The only problem is, you need oxgyen for fire...so you are kind of in trouble there.

            I do, however, plan on making the trip if it becomes feasable. Afterall, the max temperature on mars is somewhere near 80 degrees F. So,
    • Oil that is, looks like mud but doesn't require water. First thing you know old Jed's a millionaire!
    • Re:intrigue (Score:5, Informative)

      by BobTheLawyer (692026) on Monday January 12, 2004 @05:01PM (#7956433)
      Great point: but the surface of Mars isn't just fine dry powders; it's fine dry powders in relatively low gravity. The behaviour of this isn't something we're familiar with and it may be that which is spooking the unnamed scientist.

      Is the reason it "can't be mud" that it would have shown up as such in previous spectroscopic analyses from orbit?
  • by cubicledrone (681598) on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:34PM (#7956070)
    There is water on Mars. The ICE CAPS were first noticed about FOUR HUNDRED YEARS AGO.

    More breaking news as it becomes available. Thank you.

    • by ElGnomo (612336)
      This one know too much.. *sets blaster to 'make go bye-bye' mode*
    • Re:This Just In (Score:5, Interesting)

      by hcg50a (690062) on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:39PM (#7956153) Journal
      400 years ago, it was not known that they were ice.

      In fact, it is only within that last 40 or so years that one of them was known to be primarily water ice, and the other was known to be primarily dry ice (ie., frozen CO2).

      The significance of today's discovery is that there is more evidence that there was liquid water (not just ice) present when some of the rocks around the Rover were formed.
    • Re:This Just In (Score:2, Informative)

      by NanoGator (522640)
      "There is water on Mars. The ICE CAPS were first noticed about FOUR HUNDRED YEARS AGO."

      You don't have to have water to have ice. The caps are made of frozen carbon dioxide.
    • Re:This Just In (Score:3, Informative)

      by polyp2000 (444682)
      This is true, but the search for Water, or evidence of it is to discover whether the water was liquid once flowing. Evidence of flowing water on mars , ie, not ice ! would suggest that mars once had a climate warm enough to have conditions capable of supporting life.

      Although there are many examples of situations where life on earth exists in very extreme conditions. EG , very hot deep sea thermal vents, or in very cold conditions in the earths Ice caps. If we can find flowing water , or evidence therof. Th
  • by tealover (187148) on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:34PM (#7956073)
    If there are martians, they're most certainly living underneath the unforgiving surface. I would love to see Rover snap a pic of someone peeking his head out from a hole in the ground.

  • The rover may soon be the first to go mudbogging on Mars... So that is why Bush wants to go to Mars.
  • by Faust7 (314817) on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:35PM (#7956091) Homepage
    Water is believed to be a pre-requisite for life.

    Well, that and a 1x4x9 ebon slab.
    • Well, that and a 1x4x9 ebon slab

      Actually, as I recall (from one of the books), it was a 1 x 4 x 9 x 16 x 25 x 36 x... slab. It was just that the perceptions of our simian ancestors were limited to three dimensions.
  • Forgive my Astrophysics ignorance, but can someone explain this quote:

    "It looks like mud, but it can't be mud.

    I skimmed the article, and did not see it explained anywhere. Why, exactly, can it not be mud?

    Thanks in advance!

    • It's below freezing on the surface (no atmosphere to retain heat). Not to mention that whole thin atmosphere thing doesn't provide enough pressure to prevent liquid water from boiling away anyway.

      Mud is water spatially mixed with soil, but not chemically bonded. It would freeze (as we saw in Boston, when they froze the soil for three years straight to prevent it from collapsing during the Big Dig).

      --Dan
      • It's below freezing on the surface (no atmosphere to retain heat). Not to mention that whole thin atmosphere thing doesn't provide enough pressure to prevent liquid water from boiling away anyway.

        Actually, I think you're wrong on both points here, in Gusev, during the daytime, it's warmer on the surface than it is where I live right now, and the rivers here still flow, my cat's water bowl doesn't freeze over, and it rains regularly. Once you get a few feet off the surface it's a different story, but th

    • Perhapse the constant sub-zero temperatures.

  • hydrated minerals? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gr8_phk (621180) on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:36PM (#7956103)
    "evidence of carbonates and hydrated minerals"

    Isn't that what commets are primarily composed of? I fully expect H2O molecules to be present on Mars and every other planet. This should not be a suprise to anyone.

    • by blike (716795)
      Finding evidence of a long-standing liquid body of water is the primary concern in this situation. Carbonates and hydrated materials form under these conditions.
    • by Abcd1234 (188840) on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:54PM (#7956346) Homepage
      "Isn't that what commets are primarily composed of?"

      Well, not exactly. Yes, water is present on comets. However, the H2O present on comets is primarily in a solid state. IOW, it's not fit to react with surrounding minerals (at least not in any sizeable quantities). So, yeah, it's perfectly reasonable to find trace amounts of water on Mars. However, the presence of large hydrated material deposits requires that this water be present in liquid form for relatively long periods of time.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:36PM (#7956110)
    Mars lander stuck in mud. News at 11
  • by frovingslosh (582462) on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:37PM (#7956118)
    Prediction for when the rover finally starts to rove: The good news: It finds water. The bad news: It sinks and vanishes in the mud.
  • Tidying (Score:5, Funny)

    by Faust7 (314817) on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:38PM (#7956133) Homepage
    it is clear that it is very different from any of the three previous Mars landing sites explored by Vikings 1 and 2 and Pathfinder. For example, those plains all had about 20 per cent of their surfaces covered with rocks. Around Spirit, the figure is just three per cent.

    Looks like our previous visits have made them clean up for company.
  • Not to announce major scientific discoveries in the press before they have been properly peer-reviewed?

    Cold fusion, anyone?
    • Not to announce major scientific discoveries in the press before they have been properly peer-reviewed?

      If they tried to keep it under wraps, the Area 51ers would be accusing NASA of a coverup. Besides, it's pretty tough to keep any sort of secret these days, and it's probably better to put out some bad info and have to retract it than having leakers with their own agendas putting out a distorted and fragmented view.
    • by Sgt York (591446) <jvolm&earthlink,net> on Monday January 12, 2004 @05:09PM (#7956524)
      You actually think NASA should sit on anything from Spirit until it has been published in Nature? Can you imagine the public outcry? Spirit lands, and they don't say anything except "Look at the pretty pictures! No, we won't tell you what we've found. Yes it is moving around and everything's working fine, but we won't tell you anything until publication. You'll just have to wait." The public would go apeshit. The people on /. would be out for blood. With a program this big, they can't sit on everything they find, it's just a fact of modern life. They are doing their best by keeping everything low key. Lots of "maybes" and "appears-to-bes" and "looks likes"

      Even once it has been released into the peer reviewed world, it will be sensationalized. How many times has there been a panacea cure for cancer published in Science? If you read the NYT, you'd say dozens. If you read Science, you'd say never.

    • They haven't! (Score:4, Informative)

      by starsong (624646) on Monday January 12, 2004 @05:49PM (#7956980)
      The tone I get from the writeup and the linked articles is really misleading; they make it seem like the rover team is claiming to have seen evidence of liquid water *right now* on the surface. I've been watching the daily JPL briefings since touchdown, and they've never made such a claim. The geologists have been using terms such as "mud-like" to express the mechanical behavior of the soil, not its content. The other evidence for carbonates, etc., only hints at liquid water *at some point in the past.* Think many thousands/millions of years ago, not last week.

      At each conference they've been careful to explain that there are many competing theories at the moment, only *some* of which require the action of liquid water. I guess that didn't really filter through to the media, though. If you get NASA TV in your area, check out the briefings. They're broadcast live at 9am PST, 12 noon EST, repeated on C-SPAN 1 around 4pm EST (usually), and are very informative, presentations and questions alike. Except for one reporter from Astronomy Magazine, who alternately makes me laugh and throw heavy objects at the screen.
  • yes, well (Score:3, Insightful)

    by rritterson (588983) * on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:41PM (#7956183)
    It looks like mud, but it can't be mud.

    Yeah, just like that picture of a rock from mars looks like a face but can't be a face, and that picture of that smoke looks like the image of satan, etc...

    So what if it just looks like mud? It's a freaking lo-res black and white photograph! I'll be intrigued when you say It feels like mud and is a mixture of soil and water, but it can't be mud!
    • Re:yes, well (Score:3, Informative)

      by z_gringo (452163)
      It's actually a very high res full color image, and yes it does look like mud. Check out the Pics in the Article.

    • Re:yes, well (Score:5, Informative)

      by The Bungi (221687) <thebungi@gmail.com> on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:50PM (#7956303) Homepage
      It feels like mud and is a mixture of soil and water, but it can't be mud!

      It can't be mud because of physics. Water cannot exist in free form in the surface of Mars because it would simply evaporate instantly (at least in most locations). Temperature and atmospheric pressure are the usual suspects here. And we do know what those are with a relatively high degree of certainty. Ergo, it can't be mud. It must be some sort of wacky sand, like montmorillonite. Data from the Mariner probes has detected a few dozen types of this clay. Maybe this is one we haven't seen before.

      Water, if found, will be either in the poles or trapped in molecule-sized amounts in rocks under the surface, nominally because of some sort of organism like microscopic algae or fungus keeps it there as part of its organic cycle. The idea goes that if you find water there you're also likely to find some type of primitive life.

      But I suggest we let the thing dig holes and stuff before we get all excited =)

  • by UrgleHoth (50415) on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:43PM (#7956204) Homepage
    But it will probably turn out to be a mirage.
  • by spaceman harris (646958) on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:47PM (#7956260)
    I've been looking around various sites, but mostly keeping up with news about Spirit through google news. What is THE best site for up to the minute reports?
  • Don't jump (Score:5, Interesting)

    by toxic666 (529648) on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:49PM (#7956291)
    to conclusions based upon early data before the rover has even "hit the road." We'll be getting more and better data.

    As an example. One of my geology profs was studying an outcropping of calcium-rich meta-igneous rock (meta basalt). He kept finding a mix of calcium oxalate minerals on the surface of the rock in numerous places, but couldn't understand how they would be a weathering product. Oxalate minerals are unusual in nature.

    Then it dawned on him. Oxalates are common in kidney stones. He bought a live trap and captured several wild rats. Then he kept them in a lab and realized they like to urinate in the same place. What appeared to be a strange chemical weathering reaction was actually just evaporated rat urine.

    Point is, first impressions may be incorrect and additional data and study leads to more accurate conclusions. Sometimes those later conclusions are more interesting (or comical) than the original hypothesis.
  • by Guano_Jim (157555) on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:50PM (#7956300)
    An ongoing intrigue is already developing - a scientist reckoned that some of the soil around the airbag 'looks like mud, but it can't be mud'."

    ...let it be oil. Bush will have a man on Mars in ten minutes, tops.

  • Water (Score:5, Informative)

    by Fr33z0r (621949) on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:52PM (#7956332)
    Last I heard they'd found bound water, and the surface was a lot hotter than they expected it to be. In the last image release I notice they show a graph of the temperature (presumably up near the Pancam) at ~1m above the surface - the great thing about Mars' atmosphere is how quickly it get's cold the higher you get - i.e. very. Like, your feet could be warm and your head would be a solid block of ice.

    The kinda cool thing is the TES data [asu.edu] shows a current temperature map at surface level - you notice at Gusev Crater (where spirit is, about 15S, 185W - so basically around halfway down the right edge of the picture) the temperature is somewhere around 0C, +/-10 degrees or so.

    The *really* cool thing is, when they were getting ready to make the rover stand up and strut its stuff, they went through extra checks and testing on Earth because the landing site was a lot warmer than they expected - there's every chance that it's above 0 there, in fact, there's every chance that (on the surface at least) Spirit is enjoying much better weather than I am right now.

    It's common knowledge that Mars' equator regularly gets up into the positive numbers, even up above 20c, the only real question as to the feasibility of liquid water in these regions is whether there is any ice left there to melt, or if it is all up at the poles (or underground). Due to the low triple point of water on Mars, and the theory that it's just coming out of an ice-age, there's every chance there is no liquid left around there to melt, but there's certainly a chance there is.

    Fortunately, we have a rover up there that will be able to tell us for sure in a few days :)
    • Re:Water (Score:5, Informative)

      by ScottMaxwell (108831) on Monday January 12, 2004 @05:59PM (#7957089) Homepage
      Quick comment from a rover driver, since I'm being a media whore today anyway ....

      Last I heard they'd found bound water, and the surface was a lot hotter than they expected it to be.

      This is correct -- in Spirit's vicinity, the water content is something like a few percent of the soil. This is exciting not because it's news that there's water in the Martian soil (we knew that already, from Odyssey measurements), but because there's water where we are -- it means Spirit has water right under her feet. Also because it's "ground truth" for the orbital measurements.

      The higher temperatures are probably due to the (clearing) dust storm. Spirit is almost too warm, which is about the last problem we ever expected to have (but I'd rather have this problem than most others I can think of!).

      Incidentally, there probably is liquid water on Mars -- or, more precisely, under Mars; it's all in the range of 100m to 2km below the soil. Surface water would sublime.

      Still waiting to drive ....

    • Re:Water (Score:5, Interesting)

      by isomeme (177414) <cdberry@gmail.com> on Monday January 12, 2004 @07:15PM (#7957762) Homepage Journal

      Due to the low triple point of water on Mars, and the theory that it's just coming out of an ice-age, there's every chance there is no liquid left around there to melt, but there's certainly a chance there is.


      The triple point (at which solid, gas, and liquid phases are in equilibrium) doesn't change from planet to planet; it's a fixed temperature and pressure pair for any given material.

      For water, the triple point is 273.16 K at 611.2 Pa. That pressure is about twice the highest found in the lowest parts of the Martian surface. As a result, any liquid water on the surface will very quickly change phase to ice, vapor, or (most likely) some of both phases.

      The nice thing for would-be Martian terraformers is that you only have to double Mars's surface pressure to begin to make liquid water stable in low-lying parts of the surface. Even there, it would freeze solid every night and most days, but you'd get *some* periods where the water might stay liquid for hours at a time during the local afternoon.
  • by gatekeep (122108) on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:54PM (#7956350)
    Big deal, mud on mars.. wake me up when the hot three-breasted mutant alien chicks are wrestling in it :)
  • Microscope needed! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by DumbSwede (521261) <slashdotbin@hotmail.com> on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:55PM (#7956355) Homepage Journal
    Too bad beagle doesn't appear to have survived landing on mars. From the description of its mission it seemed more directed at finding evidence of life more directly. NASA seems to have concluded the Viking data was the last word on the subject and would rather gather indirect evidence of life for now, rather than direct evidence and have it seem a failure if none is discovered. Viking sat on the Mars for years transmitting back data. I imagine the most useful info would have been transmitted in the first days after a complete scan had been made of the area. Now granted Spirit and Opportunity can wheel around to new local each day, but most of the data will be of the nature Hey-NASA-I've-Found-Another-Red-Rock. How much better to have a decent microscope that can scan unending detail in samples taken. Some say the stew of nutrients Viking used showed circadian rhythm like responses. Had this been true biological activity, no doubt a microscopic examination would have shown the beasties, regardless of their chemistry. Speaking of chemistry, Viking only seemed to include one nutrient mix. For fauna adapted to a desicating environment, one can only wonder if perhaps they drowned the poor buggers.

    All and all, I don't understand why a range of microscopes has not been standard issue on all Mars lander missions.

  • Why not ask the prop guys?
  • by madcow_ucsb (222054) <slashdot2@sank[ ]et ['s.n' in gap]> on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:55PM (#7956362)
    ...and not a scientist, I've always wondered...Why do we feel like all life *needs* water? Who's to say the martians don't live on nitrogen or uranium or plaine old red rocks? Or that they don't thrive on some yet undiscovered stuff.

    I know I don't have a clue what I'm talking about (hence posting to /. :), but it always seems silly to me when NASA keeps says "we need to find the water to find the life!" Says who?

    • They aren't saying exactly that. They don't rule out the possibility that life could exist in other forms. They simply already KNOW that life can exist where there is liquid water present, so they are trying to find some of that as proof that life we know of can or did exist there. In other words, they don't know what else to look for right now, so until they stumble across other forms of life, water is the #1 thing to look for.

      Mark
    • as we know it... (Score:5, Informative)

      by rebelcool (247749) on Monday January 12, 2004 @05:41PM (#7956910)
      carbon life needs water to form hydrocarbons which are the building blocks of the complex molecules of life.

      its hypothesized you could base life on some other elements (like silicon), but since we've never seen it, we wouldn't even know *how* to look for it, much less recognize it if we did, short of a silicon based life form seen moving around...

  • by polyp2000 (444682) on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:55PM (#7956373) Homepage Journal
    Maybe the soil in the area of the rover was once mud (before it was frozen) and the bouncy air bags were so f**king hot when they bounced on the ground that it melted the mud and left funny patterns?

    Of course... by now though, it'll be frozen again.
  • Planting Life (Score:5, Interesting)

    by the_mad_poster (640772) <shattoc@adelphia.com> on Monday January 12, 2004 @04:58PM (#7956404) Homepage Journal

    Aren't there certain bacteria that can survive the long, harsh trip through space? What if they were attached since liftoff, survived the trip through space, survived the burn in the thin atmosphere, and wound up being deposited in a somewhat moist area? Even if there wasn't MUCH water, if there was SOME water, they could, in theory, manage to survive slightly under the surface. Even the tiniest petri dish could wind up with a breeding ground for life on Mars and so long as there's some atmosphere to contain the water and the gases emitted by the bacteria, it could be a spark for future life on Mars.

    Sorry if I'm rambling illogically. I'm not well versed in the Martian atmosphere, so feel free to shoot my naive, young hopes down if I'm totally out in left field.

    • Re:Planting Life (Score:5, Informative)

      by applemasker (694059) on Monday January 12, 2004 @05:23PM (#7956702)
      I recall some international guidelines and protocols governing the number of earth biojunk we can allow to hitchhike to planets or moons where life may or may have existed. The two Viking landers were sterilized in a large oven and then packed for launch - much to the dismay of the engineers who built them at the time who were concerned about thermal damage to the components as a result of this.

      For whatever reason, NASA was reluctant to bake Pathfinder/Sojourner which landed in 1997 and instead baked bits and pieces (antennae, solar panels, parachute, etc.), and cleaned the rest (antibacterial windex, I guess) so that Pathfinder was "clean enough" - i.e., within the international guidelines.

      I haven't found any info regarding the Spirit and Opportunity or the lost missions that may have impacted, however it's fair to assume that they, like Pathfinder and Mars Polar Lander (now in its own crater somewhere) went through some decontamination before launch, but Mars Climate Orbiter that burned on aerobraking gone awry was intended to orbit, not land, and may have not been so assiduously decontaminated. Like the famous Apollo example where astronauts retrieved a sneezed-on camera lens from a previous unmanned probe that still harbored some bugs, life is more hearty that we think.

  • by TheVampire (686474) on Monday January 12, 2004 @05:04PM (#7956464) Homepage
    is if Rovers camera spotted a fossil in the 'mud"...
  • by MrRee (120132) on Monday January 12, 2004 @05:05PM (#7956476) Homepage
    Scan for life, Mr. Data...
  • by tetrahedrassface (675645) on Monday January 12, 2004 @05:12PM (#7956560) Journal
    You can see here [chattanooga.net] that natural processes most likely have occured in a similar manner Mars as they do on Earth. The rover is going to check out these rocks tomorrow or the next day if all goes well. It is exciting to see discovery and the scientific process in action. Who knows maybe water is very common there and thats what eroded this hole into this rock. In any case, sooner or later we are going to turn up water on mars, find life, and reaffirm how precious life on earth in its abundance indeed is.
  • by OneFix at Work (684397) on Monday January 12, 2004 @05:32PM (#7956810)
    Wouldn't it be kind of funny if the rover rolls off the platform and becomes stuck in this "Mud"?

    I'm guessing that it may be possible that there is thermal activity just under the surface of the landing site which is keeping the surface warm enough to have "mud" and possibly some sort of underground water deposit that is seeping through the ground in this area...

    But I guess the NASA scientists are better at this than my arm-chair quarterback approach...

    Then again, I can just see the press conference..."We found water on Mars"..."The rover got stuck in the mud"...
  • by dekashizl (663505) on Monday January 12, 2004 @05:59PM (#7957087) Journal
    For news, status, updates, scientific info, images, video, and more, check out:
    Mars Exploration Rover Highlights (AXCH) [axonchisel.net].

    This has links to tons of great information, images, QuickTimeVR, 3d images, videos, history, cartoons, and lots more about Mars and this MER Spirit mission in particular. Great as a springboard to look up more info as these issues (mud, water, etc.) come up.
  • Making News (Score:5, Informative)

    by dpuu (553144) on Monday January 12, 2004 @06:41PM (#7957504) Homepage
    I actually watched this morning's press conference where the "looks like mud, but can't be" quote came up. The scientists were talking about this interesting scraping on the surface (the "magic carpet") where the airbags dragged across it, and noted that it was similar to what has been seen elsewhere (Viking, Pathfinder) but more ductile.

    Anyway, the quote was elicited only when one of the reporters there asked "to me it looks like mud, any chance it could be". The reply was that although it might look like mud, it couldn't be, followed by a description of the behavior of fine particles (they can flow, etc.).

    I'd say that to use this as a quote that "scientists say" it looks like mud is a bit disingenuous.

  • air bag? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by tonythejuice (699070) on Monday January 12, 2004 @07:46PM (#7958034)
    The typical earth airbag combusts hydrocarbons -- making co2 and water... What was in this airbag? I think hydrocarbons are a poor energy carrier per weight -- so maybe their airbag was a h2/o2 one? in any event -- possible contamination from airbag, anyone?
    • Re:air bag? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by andreMA (643885)
      Actually the content of an automotive airbag after deployment is mostly nitrogen, from the combustion (detonation?) of sodium azaide:

      This causes the solid chemical propellant sealed inside the inflator, principally sodium azide, to undergo a rapid chemical reaction. This reaction produces primarily nitrogen gas.

      From Airbag Guidelines [terc.org]. None of this, of course, necessarily has any bearing on the Mars landers, nor would the extremely rapid inflation typical of automotive airbags be necessary. Something like a

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