Tag Archives: Mars

Martian Swamp Gas?

Thanks to more than a decade of robotic studies, the surface of Mars is becoming a place as familiar to some of us as similar garden spots on Earth such as the Atacama Desert in Chile, or Devon Island in Canada. But this rust-colored world still has some tricks up its sleave!

Back in 2003, NASA astronomer Michael Mumma and his team discovered traces of methane in the dilute atmosphere of Mars. The gas was localized to only a few geographic areas in the equatorial zone in the martian Northern Hemisphere, but this was enough to get astrobiologists excited about the prospects for sub-surface life. The amount being released in a seasonal pattern was about 20,000 tons during the local summer months.

The discovery using ground-based telescopes in 2003 was soon confirmed a year later by other astronomers and by the Mars Express Orbiter, but the amount is highly variable. Ten years later, the Curiosity rover also detected methane in the atmosphere from its location many hundreds of miles from the nearest ‘plume’ locations. It became clear that the hit-or-miss nature of these detections had to do with the source of the methane turning on and off over time, and it was not some steady seepage going on all the time. Why was this happening, and did it have anything to do with living systems?

On Earth, there are organisms that take water (H2O) and combine it with carbon dioxide in the air (CO2) to create methane (CH3) as a by-product, but there are also inorganic processes that create methane too. For instance, electrostatic discharges can ionize water and carbon dioxide and can produce trillions of methane molecules per discharge. There is plenty of atmospheric dust in the very dry Martian atmosphere, so this is not a bad explanation at all.

This diagram shows possible ways that methane might make it into Mars’ atmosphere (sources) and disappear from the atmosphere (sinks). (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SAM-GSFC/Univ. of Michigan)

Still, the search for conclusive evidence for methane production and removal is one of the high frontiers in Martian research these days. New mechanisms are being proposed every year that involve living or inorganic origins. There is even some speculation that the Curiosity rover’s chemical lab was responsible for the rover’s methane ‘discovery’. Time will tell if some or any of these ideas ultimately checks out. There seem to be far more geological ways to create a bit of methane compared to biotic mechanisms. This means the odds do not look so good that the fleeting traces of methane we do see are produced by living organisms.

What does remain very exciting is that Mars is a chemically active place that has more than inorganic molecules in play. In 2014, the Curiosity rover took samples of mudstone and tested them with its on-board spectrometer. The samples were rich in organic molecules that have chlorine atoms including chlorobenzene (C6H4Cl2) , dichloroethane (C2H4Cl2), dichloropropane (C3H6Cl2) and dichlorobutane (C4H8Cl2). Chlorobenzene is not a naturally occurring compound on Earth. It is used in the manufacturing process for pesticides, adhesives, paints and rubber. Dichloropropane is used as an industrial solvent to make paint strippers, varnishes and furniture finish removers, and is classified as a carcinogen. There is even some speculation that the abundant perchlorate molecules (ClO4) in the Martian soil, when heated inside the spectrometer with the mudstone samples, created these new organics.

Mars is a frustratingly interesting place to study because, emotionally, it holds out hope for ultimately finding something exciting that takes us nearer to the idea that life once flourished there, or may still be present below its inaccessible surface. But all we have access to for now is its surface geology and atmosphere. From this we seem to encounter traces of exotic chemistry and perhaps our own contaminants at a handful of parts-per-billion. At these levels, the boring chemistry of Mars comes alive in the statistical noise of our measurements, and our dreams of Martian life are temporarily re-ignited.

Meanwhile, we will not rest until we have given Mars a better shot at revealing traces of its biosphere either ancient or contemporary!

Check back here on Thursday, March 2 for the next essay!

The Rush to Mars

Even at the start of NASA’s space program in 1958, the target of our efforts was not the moon but Mars. The head of NASA, Werner von Braun was obsessed with Mars, and his Mars Project book published in 1948, was the blueprint for how to do this, which he revised in 1969. He saw the development of the Saturn V launch vehicle as the means to this end.

A major effort running in parallel with Kennedy’s moon program was the development of nuclear rocket technology. This would be the means for getting to Mars in the proposed expedition launch in November, 1981. The program was abandoned in 1972 when President Nixon unceremoniously canceled the Apollo Program and stopped the production of Saturn Vs. That immediately put the kibosh on any nuclear propulsion efforts because the required fission reactors were far too heavy to be lifted into space by any other means. He resigned from NASA once he realized that his dream would never be realized, and died five years later.

Flash forward to 2004 when President George Bush announced his Space Exploration Initiative to include a manned trip to Mars by the 2030s. There would be manned trips to the moon by 2015 to test out technologies relevant to the Mars trip and to learn how to live there for extended periods of time.

By 2008, the lunar portion of this effort was canceled, however the development of the Orion capsule and what is now called the Space Launch System were the legacies of this program still in place and expected to be operational by ca 2019. The rest of the Initiative is now called NASA’s Journey to Mars, and lays out a detailed plan for astronauts learning how to work farther and farther from Earth in self-sustaining habitats, leading to a visit to Mars in the 2030s. Meanwhile, the International Space Station has been greatly extended in life to the mid-2020s so we can finally get a handle on how to live and work in space and solve the many medical issues that still plague this environment.

However, NASA’s systematic approach is not the only one in progress today.

The entire foundation of Elon Musk’s Space-X company is to build and make commercially profitable successively larger launch vehicles leading to the Interplanetary Transport System which will bring 100 colonists at a time to the surface of Mars in about 80 days starting around 2026. Space-X is even partnering with NASA for a sample return mission called Red Dragon in ca 2018. Meanwhile, a competing program called Mars One (see picture above) proposes a crew of four people to land in 2032 with additional crew delivered every two years. . This will be a one-way do-or-die colony, and loss of life is expected. Mars One consists of two entities: the not-for-profit Mars One Foundation, and the for-profit company Mars One Ventures with CEO Bas Lansdorp at the corporate helm.

But wait a minute, what about all the non-tech issues like astronaut health and generating sustainable food supplies? Astronauts have been living in the International Space Station for decades in shifts, and many issues have been identified that we would be hard pressed to solve in only ten more years. NASA’s go-slow approach may be the only one consistent with not sending astronauts to a premature death on mars, with all the political and social ramifications that implies.

The dilemma is that slow trips to Mars, like the 240-day trips advocated by NASA’s plan exacerbate health effects from prolonged weightlessness including bone loss, failing eyesight, muscle atrophy and immune system weakening. These effects are almost eliminated by much shorter trips such as the 80-day target by Space-X. In fact, the entire $100 billion International Space Station raison de etra is to study long term space effects during these long transits. This existential reason for ISS would have been eliminated had a similar investment been made in ion or nuclear propulsion systems that reduced the travel time to a month or less!

Ironically, Werner von Braun knew about this as long ago as 1969, but his insights were dismissed for political reasons that led directly to our confinement to low Earth orbit for the next 50 years!

Check back here on Sunday, January 22 for the next installment!