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Mars Space Science

NASA's Mars News Is Not Life, But Perchlorate 289

leighklotz writes "In an update to the little green men story of not-life-on-Mars, NASA has twittered: 'The buzz this weekend was due to an interesting soil chemistry finding, still preliminary, but now avail here:' where 'here' is NASA Spacecraft Analyzing Martian Soil Data. The exciting bit: 'Within the last month, two samples have been analyzed by the Wet Chemistry Lab of the spacecraft's Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer, or MECA, suggesting one of the soil constituents may be perchlorate, a highly oxidizing substance.' Also, 'NASA will hold a media teleconference on Tuesday, Aug. 5, at 2 p.m. EDT, to discuss these recent science activities.'"
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NASA's Mars News Is Not Life, But Perchlorate

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  • Contamination? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by morgan_greywolf ( 835522 ) * on Monday August 04, 2008 @10:03PM (#24475449) Homepage Journal
    Perhaps I'm missing something obvious here, but how seriously are they considering the possibility of contamination? Because unless I'm remembering something wrong, perchlorates are most excellent oxidizers and hence commonly used in, oh, say, solid rocket fuel, among other things.
  • So, they are REALLY little green men? So small they look like chemicals?
  • Ramifications? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by ROMRIX ( 912502 )
    Perchlorate, ok. What are the ramifications of finding naturally occurring perchlorate?
    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 04, 2008 @10:12PM (#24475515)

      Perchlorate can be used for explosives ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perchlorate ) and suggests the presence of unlawful combatants on Martian soil.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Whiteox ( 919863 )

      It means that the free oxygen in the atmosphere had combined with available hydrogen and metals.
      Simple put, Potassium/Sodium/Calcium had reacted with water or some hydrogen based acid - perhaps as gas forming a hydride and any free oxygen reacted with that compound to make a perchlorate!
      Stunning stuff if you think about it.
      If true, it's a real bonus for survival.

  • GW Bush (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 04, 2008 @10:09PM (#24475489)

    So who had the job of explaining this to Pres. Bush, and how long did it take before he understood?

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by aliquis ( 678370 )

      Bush isn't stupid, he's just intellectually impaired.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Bush ain't dumbified, he's just inteligentally impairificated.

        Fixed it for you.

  • by loraksus ( 171574 ) on Monday August 04, 2008 @10:10PM (#24475497) Homepage

    Because it sure sounds like "whole heck 'o alot of rocket fuel just lying on top of frozen water on a planet with 38% of the gravity of Earth"

    Sounds like it would make space travel / trips to / from Mars dramatically easier.

  • by bsDaemon ( 87307 ) on Monday August 04, 2008 @10:10PM (#24475499)

    OK, so at first I read "highly oxodizing" and was thought, "neat; now they know why Mars is rust colored." However, even after RTFA, I was still clueless as to why I should care. Luckily, Wikipedia comes to the rescue.

    From the wiki [wikipedia.org]:

    Both potassium perchlorate (KClO4) and ammonium perchlorate (NH4ClO4) are used extensively within the pyrotechnics industry, whereas ammonium perchlorate is a component of solid rocket fuel. Lithium perchlorate, which decomposes exothermically to give oxygen, is used in oxygen "candles" on spacecraft, submarines and in other esoteric situations where a reliable backup or supplementary oxygen supply is needed. Most perchlorate salts are soluble in water.

    So, it seems to me that the important discovery is that there could be a relatively massive supply of a chemical compound which is able to produce breathable oxygen, if and when we can ever get people to Mars. If this is indeed the case, then YES, this is exciting news, a whole lot more important than why Mars is red, and is on the level of the sort of thing that the President might want to know about.

    • by Knara ( 9377 )

      Nutty. Certainly exciting, however.

    • by Azarael ( 896715 )
      Assuming that it didn't arrive with the probe, the wikipedia article also suggests that perchlorate causes thyroid problems. So if we make it there, we'll have access to air, but will have to deal with another potential harmful problem for staying.
    • by loconet ( 415875 )

      "..the sort of thing that the President might want to know about."

      or not. The same phoenix twitter page [twitter.com] says that the reports claiming there was a White House briefing are untrue.

    • So, it seems to me that the important discovery is that there could be a relatively massive supply of a chemical compound which is able to produce breathable oxygen, if and when we can ever get people to Mars. If this is indeed the case, then YES, this is exciting news, a whole lot more important than why Mars is red, and is on the level of the sort of thing that the President might want to know about.

      However, this particular president is not interested in that. As an oxidizer is an essential component of a bomb, NASA briefed him so that he could declare Mars a "red level" terrorist threat due to the significant amounts of WMDs that could be manufactured there. Plans to liberate Mars are already in the works.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Rayban ( 13436 ) *

      Get your ass to Mars!

    • So, it seems to me that the important discovery is that there could be a relatively massive supply of a chemical compound which is able to produce breathable oxygen

      In addition to the oxygen + rocket fuel oxidizer - all that perchlorate is in close proximity to frozen water and the gravity of Mars is 38% of Earth's. Not a bad combination if you wanted to launch some rockets elsewhere.

    • by aliquis ( 678370 )

      And we'd also got plenty of chloride while doing it!

      Someone watch out if the germans try to set up their "oxygen manufacturing camps."

      (No, you don't need to correct me on gases.)

    • Keeping it in the atmosphere is quite another and is largely a function of gravity.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Phroggy ( 441 )
        Sure, but if we were to build an air-tight structure, it'd be nice to know we'd have something to fill it with.
    • by giminy ( 94188 )

      So, it seems to me that the important discovery is that there could be a relatively massive supply of a chemical compound which is able to produce breathable oxygen, if and when we can ever get people to Mars.

      Sweet! I am suddenly reminded of Total Recall....

    • by Clock Nova ( 549733 ) on Tuesday August 05, 2008 @12:03AM (#24476171)

      First water, now rocks that you can burn to get oxygen. All we need now is a monkey and some sausage vines. "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" is beginning to look more and more plausible.

  • NASA using twitter? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by LostCluster ( 625375 ) *

    I think the buried lead here is that the government is now microblogging. Wonder who they're following?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    After a Martian belched on the lander's instruments during Mar's version of the 4th of July weekend it's understandable that they would get a false positive for life. After the Martian sobered up he cleaned the lens and promised never to do it again so there's still hope of detecting the faint signs of life coming from the Martian soil. In a related story the yellow ice crystals were the result of the same over indulgent Martian who has also promised to stop pissing on the lander's leg. Hopefully now that t

  • It'll be like in that Disney movie where Christopher Lloyd was a Martian. The name escapes me right now. They'll find all kinds of fascinating stuff in soil and rocks and it'll be fascinating like crazy. Then, when the power supply dies and the rover freezes forever, it will be about ten feet away from where a city the size of New York would have come into view. That's a hundred quadrillion dollars well spent!
  • Perchlorate (Score:5, Funny)

    by clang_jangle ( 975789 ) * on Monday August 04, 2008 @10:28PM (#24475633) Journal
    I used to perchlorate my coffee every morning, but then I read that the drip method actually gives you more caffeine. So the mars people are stuck with 1960s technology then?
  • Oxygen Generation (Score:5, Informative)

    by Rand310 ( 264407 ) on Monday August 04, 2008 @10:30PM (#24475645)

    Perchlorate does three things:

    -Treats thyroid gland disorders

    -Used as rocket fuel

    -Used in generating oxygen (O2) chemically

    Seems like good happenstance to land on a planet with frozen water on tracts of rocket fuel and solid oxygen-generating salts.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chemical_oxygen_generator

  • by flyingrobots ( 704155 ) on Monday August 04, 2008 @10:39PM (#24475717)

    ...the EPA will now make Mars a Superfund site...Mars missions are going to have to wait until it's cleaned up.

    Kevin

  • so we're polluting our home planet and we need to colonize a new one, and the first candidate turns out to be a contaminated rocket fuel brownfield

    the conference on august 5th will nothing more than an announcemnet that NASA is being put under administrative jurisdiction of the EPA

  • by esldude ( 1157749 ) on Monday August 04, 2008 @10:55PM (#24475813)
    He explained it to NASA over 40 years ago. There is no life on Mars because life would effect the atmosphere in ways discernible to us. There isn't any need to send missions to figure that out. It of course wasn't the answer NASA wanted from him. There could of course be evidence of life in the past, but it looks unlikely to have ever been the case. Still the missions to Mars on a hopeless search for life are cool.
  • by buddahrock ( 857762 ) on Monday August 04, 2008 @10:57PM (#24475835)
    Maybe the President just needed a few days to rent and watch Total Recall, then convince Governor Schwarzenegger to go to Mars and start the ancient Martian machine that creates a breathable atmosphere.
  • perchlorates could be used to generate free oxygen, but that might not be a good idea unless the chlorine is also bound up into something useful. Maybe there is a good way to do that, too.

    If it turned out to be, say, Sodium Chlorate, then a little heat can release oxygen leaving behind... table salt! Too cool. Is that too much to hope for?
  • by Ralph Spoilsport ( 673134 ) * on Monday August 04, 2008 @11:06PM (#24475877) Journal
    So, they start cutting a bunch of it into O2, and the next thing you know - KABOOM!!! The planet explodes. Awesome. Can't wait to see THAT go down. I'll swipe a bottle of scotch and watch the fireworks...

    RS

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by elnico ( 1290430 )

      Well, with either perchlorates or oxygen, you have an oxidizing agent. The part you're still missing though is the thing to be oxidized.

      It's not like the only thing keeping fires in check here on earth is lack of oxygen. There's definitely enough oxygen in the atmosphere to burn things like forests. The real source of energy for a reaction like a forest fire is the chemicals that were at some point created by organisms through the absorption of sunlight.

      On presumably lifeless Mars, there is no process by

  • I never... (Score:5, Funny)

    by strabes ( 1075839 ) on Monday August 04, 2008 @11:14PM (#24475937)
    I never want to see this phrase on Slashdot again:

    NASA has twittered

    God help us.

    • Re:I never... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by FooBarWidget ( 556006 ) on Tuesday August 05, 2008 @03:43AM (#24477169)

      Or maybe Twitter is more useful than the average Slashdotter wants to believe. I was baffled last time when I read the Slashdot reactions on Identi.ca and microblogging. Apparently people here have never heard of microblogging as a way to keep in touch with one's friends.

  • Or maybe not? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by anadem ( 143644 ) <[anadem] [at] [gmail.com]> on Monday August 04, 2008 @11:40PM (#24476067)

    Or maybe not, based on data from the Viking missions:

    http://www.space.com/news/spacehistory/viking_life_010728-1.html [space.com]

    "Photos taken on Mars' surface of a Viking magnetic experiment on both landers show material clinging to the magnets. That suggests to Levin that whatever the surface processes are on Mars, they are not innately highly oxidizing. A highly oxidizing soil would convert magnetized materials to oxidized forms. Therefore, the magnet would be free of such particles.

    "Similarly, the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997, Levin added, also had significant amounts of magnetic material adhering to magnets attached to the spacecraft.

    "Levin said that the paradigm of a Mars sterilized by a highly oxidizing surface is "too embedded in our scientific fabric to be set aside even by demonstrated proofs. He points to a John F. Kennedy quote that says 'the great enemy of truth is often not the lie --deliberate, contrived and dishonest -- but the myth -- persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.'"

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Goldsmith ( 561202 )

      Do you really think hundreds of scientists, all out to prove each other wrong would overlook highly publicized results? Or maybe the one guy saying something different is wrong.

      Another name for iron oxide?

      Magnetite [wikipedia.org].

      If that's not good enough, hematite, another form of iron oxide is magnetic at lower Martian surface temperatures. Any kid who has gone out to the desert with a magnet knows that you can pick up all sorts of stuff with it. Maybe people should try a little experimental verification before they

  • A highly oxidizing substance on the surface of the rusty red planet? STOP THE PRESSES!
  • by caywen ( 942955 ) on Tuesday August 05, 2008 @12:22AM (#24476265)
    Cmon NASA, stop being coy. You found it didn't you? I'm bummed you won't report on the ancient Martian gateway into deep inside the planet, marked with ancient pictoglyphic scriptures with overtones from Egypt. You know you have it. You know you've found the interdimensional gateway where your inside people had supersecret meetings with The Progenitor, a master being who designed evolution here on Earth. What's with this wussy "interesting chemical" crap?
  • by Eicos ( 1338783 ) on Tuesday August 05, 2008 @12:35AM (#24476341)
    Back in the 70's, NASA ran an experiment on one of the Viking landers to try to see if there was any life on Mars. The experiment contained some radiolabeled "food," to which a sample of regolith and water would be added. If radiolabeled gas evolved from the resulting mixture and was detected, it would be taken as a sign that some kind of native microbe was eating the food and emitting the gas as a byproduct of anaerobic respiration. And in fact, the experiment did detect radiolabeled gas. However, none of the other analyses turned up positive, including the mass spectrometer. So scientists floated an alternative theory: that the Martian regolith contained some kind of oxidizing agent, which would have explained both the evolution of radiolabeled gas, and the absence of life on Mars. Most scientists accepted this theory, but even to this day, there were a few who believed it was a little bit too convenient, and that the labeled release experiment had actually turned up evidence of life. The discovery of perchlorate, a strong oxidizing agent, would put that speculation to rest.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Dr. Levin's Labeled Release experiment showed a strong positive response for life. Here is the crazy part and the part your mistaken about - all similar experiments on the Viking missions did as well.

      Great scientists like Carl Sagan felt we had "evidence up to our eyebrows" but we also had uncertainty. Oxidizers were a possibility but none known (including percolates) explained the results.

      Now we have one experiment giving us two results. Percolates in one sample none in another.

      Ya know what? I think we hav

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by khallow ( 566160 )

        Dr. Levin's Labeled Release experiment showed a strong positive response for life. Here is the crazy part and the part your mistaken about - all similar experiments on the Viking missions did as well.

        There were no similar experiments to the labeled release experiment.

        Now we have one experiment giving us two results. Percolates in one sample none in another.

        A simple explanation is that perchlorates aren't uniformly distributed. At a glance, it appears the first sample, the one that didn't find perchlorates, was taken from dust above the layer of ice, and the second was taken from the ice layer. That actually makes sense since water, even in ice form is a good source of oxygen and an easy way to transport ions (like chlorine and perchlorate) around, you just need to knock the hydrogen off (say

      • by Beezlebub33 ( 1220368 ) on Tuesday August 05, 2008 @08:19AM (#24478305)

        The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not "Eureka!" (I found it!) but "Hm...that's funny..." ~Isaac Asimov

  • Extremophiles? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by JumperCable ( 673155 ) on Tuesday August 05, 2008 @07:00AM (#24477933)

    Do we have any extremophiles that life in a highly oxidizing environment?

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Ihlosi ( 895663 )

      Do we have any extremophiles that life in a highly oxidizing environment?

      Yes. Most of it likes its oxygen as a gas, though, and not as part of a solid compound. Compared to what Earth was like when life began, it is a highly oxidizing environment now. Life hasn't just adapted to cope with it, it has literally become addicted to the stuff.

  • by Gonoff ( 88518 ) on Tuesday August 05, 2008 @08:01AM (#24478211)

    It is an ion. Was it perhaps Calcium perchlorate, hydrogen perchlorate or something else. Maybe it was Uranium perchlorate?

    Saying it was perchlorate is as meaningless as saying that the sea is full of hydroxide, In fact H20 is hydrogen hydroxide - or water. We need a more meaningful statement...

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by steelfood ( 895457 )

      the sea is full of hydroxide

      We must make every effort to cleanse our seas of this life-threatening chemical!

      And while we're at it, we should filter out all the DHMO as well.

  • by peter303 ( 12292 ) on Tuesday August 05, 2008 @12:50PM (#24482115)
    Viking explicitly tested for "biological activity" and had a false-positive result due to an oxidizing soil. I think they blamed it on a peroxide at that time, but Viking didnt have as accuratate analyszers as Phoenix has.
    I recall it was Carl Sagan who suggested biological life was locally anti-entropic and one should look for chemical disequilibriums like free oxygen or methane. Over time these substances naturally move into lower energy states through chemical reactions if life wasn't present. However, planetary surfaces and interiors may not be closed energy systems. Mars soil is bombarded by solar UV; Io is heated by Jupiter tidal stress. These energy injections can create life-like chemical disequilibriums too.

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