Elaine Meinel Supkis
As always, when new studies or probes show any moisture in the Martian ecosystem, everyone goes nuts imagining there must be life there. If there is, it would be vanishingly small in size. Time to think about our own planet's water and why we have a living planet unlike Mars.
Reporter: Paula Kruger
MARK COLVIN: There's little in outer space that fires the imagination more than the possibility of life on Mars.
For life there needs to be water, and the latest news from NASA is that there is plenty of that.
A new radar that's measured ice deposits on Mars indicates that there's enough frozen water there to cover the entire planet to a depth of about 11 metres.
The find doesn't bring us any closer to knowing whether there was life on Mars, but it has revived the hopes of some that there could be life on the planet in the future, as Paula Kruger reports.
PAULA KRUGER: It has long been seen as the dry, dusty red planet.
But the latest discovery is pouring a lot of cold water, or, more correctly, ice on that belief.
Even when doing the simplest science news stories, they have to lie. For the last 30 years, everyone knew there was water on Mars. Heck, my grandfather, Edison Pettit, studied Mars for years on Mt. Wilson and other obvervatories and they knew all that time, the poles had water of some sort and he was asked by Lowell to map the canals on Mars.
Which proved to be illusions. We know a great deal more about the planet 100 years later but the fantasy that this place which is very dry, but at least wetter than the nearly 100% (at the very least) dry moon, could be habitable is hard to avoid.
Indeed, NASA's mission for the future is being warped badly by this dream. Last week, Congress asked NASA why they aren't even bothering to map the very, very dangerous asteroids and other celestial hazards and they said they have no money for this sort of thing. Protecting us from total annihilation is taking the back seat to a bunch of neo-con Mars colonization fanatics.
The word 'fanatic' comes from the Latin word describing people driven mad by the gods. 'Fantasy' comes from the Indoeuropean concept of a bright image.
These stories about Martian water crop up like clockwork. This latest one is rather dryly amusing in that it is anxious to pretend there is really lots and lots of water there just waiting to be used! Of course, anyone who works with dirt knows that there is a problem with water and dirt: until the dirt is thoroughly saturated, not a drop of it will appear on top.
So the excited stuff about 'covering all of Mars with 11 meters of water!' is stupid. Namely, Mars is so awfully dry, whole sectors of it are as dry as the very dry moon! The water there is confined to the poles and the ground surrounding the poles. But this ground has enough water, barely, to keep the polar ice from slowly melting into the permafrost that characterizes this planet.
Los Alamos - March 1, 2002
Scientists today unveiled maps that detail the location of hydrogen, that may indicate water-ice, just below Mars' surface. The maps are based on data from a neutron spectrometer built at the Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory and flown aboard NASA's Mars Odyssey now in orbit around the Red planet. The data are supported by simultaneous measurements made using the Mars Odyssey's gamma-ray spectrometer.
I must have gone through several hundred NASA web pages, trying every possible combination of words, to dig this data up. It should have been easy but the concept of a dry Mars has been so annihilated for political reasons, it is really hard getting this information.
I saw these pictures when they first came out in 2002 and talked about it. But all the following news stories since then ignore this information. The excited stories this week are politically motivated: the Mars fanatics running NASA are alarmed at both the drop-off in interest in that planet and the recent questions in Congress concerning the possiblity we will be destroyed by asteroids and therefore better pay attention to these darn things, has alarmed them enough to make a big thing about this story.
To the casual observer, the news that Mars has water that could, if the planet were solid cement the water would cover it totally, seems like great news. We can colonize it after all! Of course, going back to reality, the planet isn't solid cement and if we extracted the water to fill huge basins of solid cement, the soil would then be even drier than it is today and it is very, very dry already!
The Sahara desert, just for example, has much more water hidden under it than most of Mars outside of the southern pole! Even parts of the lithosphere that have fallen away from the crust, even as it slides deeper and deeper into the mantle, it has lots of water from this saturation effect.
Indeed, just this month it was reported that one section under Tibet and another under the American Southwest has enough water to equal a small ocean! And this is in our own mantle, not even the top 10 km. The soil in my mountains here in New York is so saturated with water, even if it doesn't rain for a month, the streams and rivers still run. Right now, as a great deal of snow is melting, the streams are overflowing their banks and the rivers are roaring with water that is pouring into the vast oceans.
To get a good idea of volume, the water amounts on Mars probably is less than 10% of the water on our own planet.
What could have formed these unusual channels? Inside a small crater that lies inside large Newton Crater on Mars, numerous narrow channels run from the top down to the crater floor. The above picture covers a region spanning about 3000 meters across. These and other gullies have been found on Mars in recent high-resolution pictures taken by the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor robot spacecraft. Similar channels on Earth are formed by flowing water, but on Mars the temperature is normally too cold and the atmosphere too thin to sustain liquid water. Nevertheless, many scientists now hypothesize that liquid water did burst out here from underground Mars, eroded the gullies, and pooled at the bottom as it froze and evaporated.
Mars does have an atmophere and a climate. This includes thin, high clouds and dust storms. The planet is geologically nearly 'dead' in the sense that there is no longer any interior activity such as volcanoes, rifting or shifting of greater landmasses. The shrinking and growing polar ice sheets is the only other activity going on at this point.
If you could stand on Mars -- what might you see? Like the robotic Opportunity rover rolling across the red planet, you might well see vast plains of red sand, an orange tinted sky, and wispy light clouds. The Opportunity rover captured just such a vista after arriving at Victoria Crater earlier this month, albeit in a completely different direction from the large crater. Unlike other Martian vistas, few rocks are visible in this exaggerated color image mosaic. The distant red horizon is so flat and featureless that it appears similar to the horizon toward a calm blue ocean on Earth. Clouds on Mars can be composed of either carbon dioxide ice or water ice, and can move quickly, like clouds move on Earth. The red dust in the Martian air can change the sky color above Mars from the blue that occurs above Earth toward the red, with the exact color depending on the density and particle size of the floating dust particles.
I live where it can go below zero fairly frequently in the middle of winter. Always, the air is very, very dry. It becomes an ice desert. The streams stop running, the moisture in the earth begins to dry up and we always pray there is snow on the ground when it gets this cold or we lose moisture in the pastures and the forest and then the plants suffer. The snow is very tiny chrystals and if the sun comes out, it evaporates faster than it melts.
Mars is that sort of climate only forever. There really is no warm spring to create running water. Back when the planet was young, the mantle was warm enough to make the ground warmer and there was water flowing all over the place. But since then, it has grown drier and drier as the planet's atmosphere outgasses the moisture relentlessly over time. There is precious little left at this point.
In the 1990s the Clementine and Lunar Prospector spacecraft implied that such ice existed. The results were met with much fanfare in the media — it appeared that there was indeed ice on the Moon. But now scientists probing deep into the polar surface with radar have concluded that lunar ice, if present, will be more difficult to extract than some have proposed.
Theory says that it's tricky, but possible, to preserve water on the Moon. The Sun rises a scant 2° above the horizon at the poles. This means that the deepest craters have regions inside them that remain permanently in shadow. Water molecules ejected into space from rare cometary impacts might freeze into these pitch black "cold traps." Or perhaps hydrogen from the solar wind could combine with oxygen atoms in the lunar regolith (dust and rock) and form water molecules — a few of which find their way to the traps over the eons. Something like these processes must happen on barren Mercury, where radar has revealed sheets of ice at the planet's poles.
We really don't appreciate how much water we have on earth. The history of our own evolution as a life form is the biggest miracle and mystery of the Orion Arm of this galaxy: how did it happen? Water didn't simply interact with an atmosphere, the minute organisms began to evolve, they evolved a way of capturing the energy of the sun which would have gone towards evaporating all the water on this planet. They then released oxygen into the atmosphere and thus created the layer of gases we all breathe today.
This blanket of gases, the CO2 and the oxygen, protects the planet from the sun's naked fury and thus conserves the moisture instead of it all being destroyed as the sun fluxes and rages. The life-form created atmosphere protected the planet's water supply. And all life forms depend on this water existing so it was a perfect feed-back loop system that preserved one resource while creating a vast array of atmosphere-producing/changing chemical systems we call 'life'.
Possibly this blanket of water that is in places, many miles thick as well as tremendous soil saturation that goes all the way down to into the lithosphere is also why our mantle is probably much warmer than Mars. The planet is still quite flexible and dynamic, a multi-billion year youth that seems to never really age. Proof of this is the speed of tectonic plate movements.
Probably the last time that happened on Mars was 3 billion years ago.
By Paul Rincon
Science reporter, BBC News, Houston
Scientists are investigating the possible threat posed to astronauts by inhaling lunar dust. A study suggests the smallest particles in lunar dust might be toxic, if comparisons with dust inhalation cases on Earth apply.
These grains, called "nano-phase iron", are so small that, if inhaled, some would pass directly from the lungs into the blood circulation.
Once in the blood, the iron could "de-energise" the haemoglobin molecule which carries oxygen to the body's tissues. If enough gets dissolved in the blood, it could produce effects similar to carbon monoxide poisoning. However, exactly how much is required for this to happen remains an open question.
In addition, when some fine dust particles are examined under the microscope, they can be seen to be filled with holes - like Swiss cheese.
The sands of our own planet are not the same as this dust generated by meteor strikes and other hazards. The sun hasn't shone with total, vicious ferocity here as on the moon. Even Mars is more like the earth in that it, too, has an atmosphere. But the moon has been blasted by the sun for billions of years and the dust on the surface shows this.
People working on the lunar surface will be exposed to the dust they track indoors. Elaborate systems will have to be set up to protect them from bringing in this dust and this means of course, cutting off all real contact with the lunar surface except when there is little choice. In other words, this isn't going to be very easy to do, colonizing the moon has many grave difficulties the greatest being water itself. Water is very heavy to carry around and one would have to transport it all out of the gravitational pool of the earth and then we are removing our own basic life-source, all water that exits is gone forever and not replaced!
As always, the problem is to protect our planet, not devour it. It is far fairer and better than all the planets we have surveyed so far. Recklessly destroying it so we can live on dessicated or frozen worlds is just dumb.