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Mars Space Science

Mars Robot May Destroy Life It Was Sent To Find 129

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the oops-sorry-my-bad dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "New Scientist reports that instead of identifying chemicals that could point to life, NASA's robot explorers may have been toasting them by mistake. Even if Mars never had life, comets and asteroids that have struck the planet should have scattered at least some organic molecules over its surface but landers have failed to detect even minute quantities of organic compounds. Now scientists say they may have stumbled on something in the Martian soil that may have, in effect, been hiding the organics: a class of chemicals called perchlorates. At low temperatures, perchlorates are relatively harmless but when heated to hundreds of degrees Celsius perchlorates release a lot of oxygen, which tends to cause any nearby combustible material to burn. The Phoenix and Viking landers looked for organic molecules by heating soil samples to similarly high temperatures to evaporate them and analyse them in gas form. When Douglas Ming of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and colleagues tried heating organics and perchlorates like this on Earth, the resulting combustion left no trace of organics behind. "We haven't looked the right way," says Chris McKay of NASA's Ames Research Center. Jeffrey Bada of the University of California, San Diego, agrees that a new approach is needed. He is leading work on a new instrument called Urey which will be able to detect organic material at concentrations as low as a few parts per trillion. The good news is that, although Urey heats its samples, it does so in water, so the organics cannot burn up."
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Mars Robot May Destroy Life It Was Sent To Find

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  • I suggest we send someone back in time to prevent the robot from killing the life on Mars.

  • comets and asteroids that have struck the planet should have scattered at least some organic molecules

    Why would we expect comets or asteroids to carry organics? Haven't they been around much longer than life?

    • by gbutler69 (910166) on Monday May 25, 2009 @11:13AM (#28084411) Homepage
      Organic "compounds" can be created (and often are) through other processes other than life. So, even if there were NO life on Mars, there should be some organic compounds. The fact that they are not finding any, combined with the finding of perchlorates (i.e. used for rocket fuel, explosives, etc) shows that there is something wrong with their experimental set-up.
      • by Koby77 (992785)
        Or (Occam's razor) organic compound formation is a very rare process.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by bcmm (768152)
        Did you mean to put quotes on "organic", not on "compounds"?
      • Actually this proves that not only was there life, but intelligent life at that. They evolved, developed space flight, and left before the lower life forms on Earth arrived. The perchlorates are simply contamination for rocket fuel.

        Sounds as likely as some of the other theories I've read lately.

    • Re:What (Score:4, Informative)

      by thirty-seven (568076) on Monday May 25, 2009 @11:41AM (#28084763)

      Why would we expect comets or asteroids to carry organics? Haven't they been around much longer than life?

      • A) Because we know that comets, asteroids, and other interstellar objects and dust do contain organic chemicals: see astrochemistry [wikipedia.org]
      • B) Because organic chemicals have also been around much longer than life has. You may be interested to know that vitalism [wikipedia.org] has been discredited by the synthesis of urea [wikipedia.org].
    • by Bigjeff5 (1143585)

      "Organic" chemicals are not the same as that organic food in the grocery store. Organic chemicals are any chemical based on carbon. This includes all life on earth, and quite a bit of not-life on earth.

    • by mbone (558574)

      Why would we expect comets or asteroids to carry organics?

      Because we know that they do.

      Some meteorites, the carbonaceous chondrites [wikipedia.org], are chock full of organic material. They came from some asteroid or asteroids. Organic materials seem especially common in the outer part of the main asteroid belt.

      Comets have been found to have all sorts of organic materials [liebertonline.com] in them.

      Note that organic just means that it contains carbon compounds, not that it was produced by living things.

  • by Onyma (1018104) on Monday May 25, 2009 @10:57AM (#28084225)
    Mmm... organics boiled in water. Now I know what I'm having for lunch.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Onyma (1018104)
      Yes, replying to myself with an afterthought. Isn't this basically what we did to most of the life on our own planet? "Broiled or boiled, what would you prefer?"
  • by Zocalo (252965) on Monday May 25, 2009 @10:59AM (#28084253) Homepage
    So, instead of the Martians coming here, blowing stuff up and then catching a cold and dying out, we go there, give them heat and wipe them out first? I suppose the best defense really is a good offense!
  • OK, so now they are going to bring water to Mars as well? Might as well bring bacteria and other life as well and contaminate away..
  • 2.45 GHz (Score:1, Redundant)

    by JustOK (667959)

    Wouldn't em with a wavelenght around 12.24 cm at 2.45 GHz have been quicker, and with a nice satisfying PING when done?

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by moosesocks (264553)

      Wouldn't you want to use an IR Spectrometer?

      I'm actually somewhat surprised that we've never sent one up to Mars, given that you can find one in most research facilities today.

      • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        "Wouldn't you want to use an IR Spectrometer?"

        A number of infrared spectrometers have been sent to Mars, both on orbiters and rovers. It is, however, very difficult to see the spectroscopic signature of organics when they are at low concentrations in a soil/mineral matrix.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Some NASA engineer laughs quietly to himself, knowing he prematurely stopped the Martian invasion of Earth before it even had a chance to begin.

  • I see it odd they didn't even test the chemical detector process in realistic simulant soil before launching it to Mars . . .

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by DerekLyons (302214)

      Before the launched the chemical detectors to Mars, they didn't have a real good idea what chemicals were present in the soil in order to develop the a realistic simulant.

    • This really is insightful, the mods are correct. In fact, what they really should have done, in order to get a truly realistic soil, was send a probe to mars with chemical detectors so they could discover the contents of the soil, and send those details back so they could create a satisfactory example soil, and test the probe's chemical detectors on that. You should apply to NASA, they could use brains like you.

      • A soil sample return can be amazingly useful, if anything. Tons of advances have been made by doing a moon soil sample return, and companies even sell 'regolith', or moon soil simulant. Definitely something that needs to be done with Mars soil!

  • So we might have been inadvertently killing alien life? Like in Ender's Game, only we're killing them.
    • So we might have been inadvertently killing alien life? Like in Ender's Game, only we're killing them.

      Put more simply: Like Ender's Game, only we're the Buggers.

      Sounds 'bout right.

    • by holmstar (1388267)
      I haven't read Ender's Game yet you insensitive clod. Next on my list though. I'll have to try to forget that bit of info.
  • It's got to be terrible, finding out after 5 years that the process you've been using was destroying the very thing you were seeking out.

    This is the discussion about the man with ovucidal sperm, right?
    • ...but I think I just invented a new form of birth control. Just from a quick look over Wikipedia, and what I remember from college biology, there's multiple enzymatic exchanges between sperm and egg before fertilization can complete. So, it should be possible to engineer a relatively simple, non-hormonal drug for men to take, which would prevent sperm from being produced all of the necessary enzymes (or purposefully carry an improper, but similarly binding enzyme), which could effectively kill any receptiv
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by camperdave (969942)
        I am not sticking that part of myself into an oven, if that's what you're getting at.
        • Think of it as giving each of your little guys a microscopic explosive. They will train in one of two spec ops facilities, for one-time deployment. Upon sighting the overwhelmingly larger enemy, one will penetrate the defenses, reach the enemy nerve center, and detonate, destroying the enemy's ability to function, and thus saving you from 18-25 years imprisonment.
  • So if there should be organic molecules present from comets, then what does it prove if we find them with the new test? It seems to me, that if we proved the test inaccuracte because there must be organics, then how does it prove there was life if there are organics? It sounds like we just spent a whole lot of effort to prove the experiemt was flawed.

    • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      The test doesn't merely return a yes/no, but it lists which organic molecules it found. Some organic compounds don't last very long, so they would indicate life.

  • Apropos alien life (Score:5, Interesting)

    by rkaa (162066) on Monday May 25, 2009 @11:24AM (#28084547)

    For the benefit of new readers and the general perspective; an old short-story by Terry Bisson: http://www.netfunny.com/rhf/jokes/96q1/meat.html [netfunny.com]
    It's a "must read" if you haven't, just give in and click the link.

  • They've built a perchlorate percolator?

  • Misleading headline (Score:5, Informative)

    by noidentity (188756) on Monday May 25, 2009 @11:32AM (#28084629)

    Mars Robot May Destroy Life It Was Sent To Find

    implies that it destroyed all life on the planet (the "life it was sent to find"). Instead, it sounds like its life detector merely destroys signs of life in the samples it's testing.

    • by mizhi (186984)

      Mars Robot May Destroy Life It Was Sent To Find

      implies that it destroyed all life on the planet (the "life it was sent to find"). Instead, it sounds like its life detector merely destroys signs of life in the samples it's testing.

      The misleading, screaming headline keeps Slashdot's servers warm.

      • I submit this as the next headline: Mars Robot May Spontaneously Undergo Nuclear Fusion, Releasing Huge Amounts of Energy that Melt Planet
  • Clever:
    Previous test where negative, but flawed.  So give us another billion and we will produce the new flawed life on Mars test.
  • by mbone (558574) on Monday May 25, 2009 @11:47AM (#28084815)

    The title is very misleading.

    No-one thought that heating samples to 400 or 600 C would be good for any bacteria. The point is that they thought samples would outgas any organics. Now it seems they might be burned in the process. But in neither case were these tests designed to keep microbes alive.

    Note that one implication here is that Martian soil will burn even under Martian conditions if you heat it properly - it has its own oxygen supply.

    Martian bonfires anyone ?

    • No one thought that? Maybe someone should have bothered to test it.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by DarkOx (621550)

        Test it on what all that other Martian top soil NASA has bags of in their garage?

      • by holmstar (1388267)
        I'm sure that they DID test it, but given that they didn't know that perchlorates existed in the Martian soil, they probably didn't add any to their tests. Were they supposed to test soil with every compound known to exist and in every possible mixture? There is only so much you can do, and besides, the experiment still taught us something about mars.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Farmer Tim (530755)

      Martian bonfires anyone ?

      Didn't he write Born To Be Wild [wikipedia.org]?

    • I don't want to set Mars on fire,
      I just want to start a flame in its soil.
      In my heart I have but one desire
      And that's perchlorate, no other will boil.

      I've lost all ambition for Earthly acclaim
      I just want to find some oxygen
      And with the emissions with applied flame,
      I'll have found the little Martian men, believe me!

      I don't want to set Mars on fire,
      I just want to start a flame in its soil!

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Orange Crush (934731)

      Note that one implication here is that Martian soil will burn even under Martian conditions if you heat it properly - it has its own oxygen supply.
      Martian bonfires anyone ?

      The soil itself won't catch fire. There just happens to be just enough perchlorate to combust the tiny amounts of organics at the right temperature. Heat the soil, it gives off a few wisps of smoke, maybe a sparkle or two. Not nearly enough to start a self-sustaining fire.

      • by mbone (558574)

        The soil itself won't catch fire. There just happens to be just enough perchlorate to combust the tiny amounts of organics at the right temperature. Heat the soil, it gives off a few wisps of smoke, maybe a sparkle or two.

        And you know this, how ?

        Yes, it is unlikely that any given Martian soil will outright burn, but I would make a long bet that there will be some soil somewhere that does.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      OK: so the proper title would be: "...may destroy life signs it was sent to find."

      On the bright side, though, if we can show that Martian soil contains a big enough volume of perchlorates, it might be possible to use that knowledge to lower the payload of a manned mission (in-situ oxygen generation).

  • from the planet Omicron Persei 8 and I want revenge for you have been killing our offspring in the nursery planet you Humans call Mars.
  • So NASA creates a probe which is sent to find life but instead destroys it...

    ...I think I heard this story once [memory-alpha.org] or twice [memory-alpha.org] before...

    • by holmstar (1388267)
      It was always meant to heat the soil to a temperature that would likely kill anything in it, but the idea was that the heating would cause the organics to vaporize so that they could be sniffed by an instrument that can determine what types of molecules are present. We weren't trying to culture martian bacteria.
  • Cant we just put a strong microscope on these things?
  • Ah, the Human way of finding life:

    Astronaut 1: "So, any signs of life?"

    Astronaut 2: *shooting a flamethrower at the ground* "None."

    Astronaut 1: "Ok, just to be sure let's blow everything up and scan the debris."

  • Carl Sagan (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    In Cosmos, Carl Sagan mentions an experiment that got scrubbed off of the Viking probes because of a lack of room. I forget the scientist who cooked up the idea (Wolf-something??), but it was really simple. Send up a container of food for whatever life you're expecting, throw some dirt in their, and see if anything develops. It was basically a petri dish for Mars.

  • The Force potential of an individual was measured in sentient creatures by a midi-chlorian count. While both the Jedi and the Sith used the Force to gain their power, there were as many different groups of users and views of the Force as uses of the Force itself.
  • by CptNerd (455084) <adiseker@lexonia.net> on Monday May 25, 2009 @12:43PM (#28085499) Homepage
    Sounds like a major plot point of the old 60's movie "Robinson Crusoe on Mars", where the protagonist, a stranded astronaut, discovers that some rocks he found to put around his fire, release oxygen when heated (he discovers that just as he's running out of his bottled air). Sounds like it might be worth looking at as an oxygen source for colonies, if it produces enough O2 to be useful.
    • wait... he's running out of oxygen, and the rare oxygen he managed to find is locked inside rocks... released only be the heat of his fire. His WHAT? Fire? How the hell does he have a fire if the oxygen is so rare its locked up in rocks?

      • by CptNerd (455084)

        It's science fiction from the early 60's, it's not worth dwelling on...

        Actually, I can't remember exactly how he was doing it, but the story hinged on the fact that the pressure of the atmosphere was high enough to allow the guy to go without a pressure suit, but there wasn't enough free oxygen, so they played lots of liberties with the science. The only thing interesting was that accidental coincidence of oxygen-generating chemicals in the soil and possibly rocks, that were triggered by high heat.

        I recomme

      • by belg4mit (152620)

        Fire doesn't require oxygen, just as the root process of oxidation itself does not.
        For instance, most metals will burn in a chlorine atmosphere. This doesn't make the
        scenario any more likely, but your incredulity is unwarranted.

        • by holmstar (1388267)
          oxidation by definition requires oxygen.

          Burning, as a generic term for a exothermic chemical reaction, does not.
          • by belg4mit (152620)

            No, sorry. Check your high school chemistry book or Wikipedia please.
            Oxidation is (roughly) the loss of electrons. It is the opposite of reduction.

  • The ultimate device to detect life on mars:


    The Uri geller device.


    Its better then the Urey device and comes with a free spoon!
    So you can digg into the soil there.
  • So in War of the Worlds when they tried to vaporize Tom Cruise, they were really just looking for life?

    "Any life out there?"
    "No, Captain, just a lot of small dust clouds. Nothing of interest yet."
    "Well, let me know if we find anything."
    ...
    ZZZZZZRRRRROWT

  • The good news is that, although Urey heats its samples, it does so in water, so the organics cannot burn up.

    The bad news is that Urey is in San Diego, and not Mars.

  • Mars Robot May Drown Life It Was Sent To Find.

    Researchers now believe that throttling, smothering, and using a machete is the safest way to discover if there is indeed life on Mars.

    Also in the news - Why do aliens hate us so much?

  • It heats its sample in water. So it heats the frog slowly?
  • Don't you need to send water to Mars to do this new test?

    And just by sending these probes to Mars, don't we pretty much send a couple bacteria there, some of them theoretically can survive? What if we planted the life on Mars that we are looking to find? After all, the fact that we have successfully put down these robots onto the ground gently enough that they are sending back scientific evidence could be enough to ensure that any stow-away life was shielded from the effects of entering the atmosphere...

    May

  • If there is one thing humans are good at it's killing life. And no I am not some hippy ecologist. Just stating a fact. :P

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