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Just digging around on Mars, looking for stuff...
December 3, 2012 3:40 PM   Subscribe

That rover the United States sent to Mars found something. It won't blow your mind, but it's interesting if you're into Mars geology.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (58 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Earth-shattering" and "one for the history books" I say not.

WOLF said the boy, again.
posted by neversummer at 4:03 PM on December 3, 2012


"We're doing science at the speed of science"
posted by The otter lady at 4:05 PM on December 3, 2012 [14 favorites]


Today, Grotzinger said his original comments were misunderstood.

I would have preferred: I fucked up. Sorry.
posted by Egg Shen at 4:06 PM on December 3, 2012


"Earth-shattering" and "one for the history books" I say not.

This was misinterpreted from the start.
posted by eugenen at 4:06 PM on December 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Lest we forget with all the hullabaloo, still AWESOME.
posted by SomaSoda at 4:09 PM on December 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


It is important to stick to the most conservative and most likely explanations until we have definite proof.

That's why, until I have good contradictory evidence, I'm going to assume it was a reporter misunderstanding and blowing out of proportion something they heard, and not a scientist making claims that turned out not to be true.
posted by benito.strauss at 4:11 PM on December 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


I'm super confused by all the Internet hate. We are seeing exactly the signals one would expect if there was some microbial life on Mars (maybe today, maybe a long time ago). If it turns out to be true, it will be in the history books... well, at least the biology textbooks. The scientists are just being cautious and skeptical about a very new result. What do you expect, little green men to accost the rover and cover its cameras in Silly String?
posted by miyabo at 4:19 PM on December 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


What do you expect, little green men to accost the rover and cover its cameras in Silly String?

YES. AND PROBING. ALSO COW CIRCLES. AND CROP MUTILATION.

I WANT TO BELIEVE
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:26 PM on December 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


The Internet is still pissed about John Carter.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:26 PM on December 3, 2012 [6 favorites]


It was earth all along.
posted by Max Power at 4:27 PM on December 3, 2012


This is just like that scene in Jurassic Park where boring old Laura Dern's Character is all like "Alan, look at this stupid plant, it should even be here, isn't that just the stupidest". Two seconds later: dinosaurs.
posted by 2bucksplus at 4:35 PM on December 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's also like that scene in Jurassic Park where boring old Laura Dern's Character is up to her elbow in dinosaur poop. It's like, on the one hand: poop. But on the other hand: dinosaur poop.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:46 PM on December 3, 2012 [7 favorites]


Earth shattering has always been a bit of disappointment.

'Terrific milestone' is fine with me.
posted by mazola at 4:49 PM on December 3, 2012


It's that black goop from Prometheus isn't it.
posted by Ad hominem at 4:52 PM on December 3, 2012



Mars Rover - finds something interesting - triggers planetary self destruct sequence - Massive explosion ensues - Earth pummelled and destroyed by mountain sized asteroids - Mayan calendar runs down - Life on Earth ends

It is written.

In a Metafilter comment
posted by the noob at 5:01 PM on December 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Man, it would suck to be a nerd and get excited over something that is super important to you but which just causes normal people to shrug and look at you as if you are a weirdo after you've tried explaining it to them. Lucky that never happens to me/us, right guys?
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 5:19 PM on December 3, 2012 [5 favorites]


Man, it would suck to be a nerd and get excited over something that is super important to you but which just causes normal people to shrug and look at you as if you are a weirdo after you've tried explaining it to them. Lucky that never happens to me/us, right guys?

Sorry I poked fun at Prometheus. It wasn't that bad, just confusing.
posted by Ad hominem at 5:27 PM on December 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


Lucky that never happens to me/us, right guys?

Only once in the national press. So far.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:28 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Today, anyway.
posted by koeselitz at 5:31 PM on December 3, 2012


Man, it would suck to be a nerd and get excited over something that is super important to you but which just causes normal people to shrug and look at you as if you are a weirdo after you've tried explaining it to them. Lucky that never happens to me/us, right guys?

Sorry I poked fun at Prometheus. It wasn't that bad, just confusing.


No -- it was bad. I spent all kinds of time trying to give it a break, but really, Ridley Scott, WTF, man?

Back on track: this really is pretty interesting. Thanks for the post!
posted by trip and a half at 5:35 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm super confused by all the Internet hate.

I feel the same. I've seen some strange reactions from people over this, as if they were entitled to their Martian, or NASA deliberately deceived the public to boost the sale of freeze dried ice cream or something.

Scientist elated at new data, media goes on speculation binge, and it's NASA that has to clean up. Seems kinda backwards. But still, pretty cool stuff happening up there. Maybe we will see James Cameron land on Mars in our lifetimes.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:58 PM on December 3, 2012


ALSO COW CIRCLES.

Curiosity killed the cattle mutilators?
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:01 PM on December 3, 2012


Prometheus was a damn fine movie.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:03 PM on December 3, 2012


Local website this morning was flagging this as evidence of life.
Go, media.
posted by Mezentian at 6:03 PM on December 3, 2012


It basically is evidence of life, though. It may not be a slam dunk case. But you know what? There's no way, short of capturing video of little green men dancing on the surface of mars with signs reading "we are alive!" that people wouldn't scoff. And then, of course they'd scoff anyway, and call it all a hoax. This evidence and the original (also dismissed) results from the Viking Lander make the case pretty damn well that there's a high likelihood of life in some form on Mars. I don't understand why this news is being mocked so much. We don't even have a consistent technical definition of what constitutes life in the first place, so there'll never be a result that's absolutely clear enough to dispel all doubt.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:14 PM on December 3, 2012 [4 favorites]


A big black monolith which sent a signal to Jupiter on discovery?
posted by humanfont at 6:15 PM on December 3, 2012


It's vexing that people are in such a rush to dismiss the significance of these results. They absolutely do add some important new evidence to the "there's life on mars" column.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:16 PM on December 3, 2012


This evidence and the original (also dismissed) results from the Viking Lander make the case pretty damn well that there's a high likelihood of life in some form on Mars.

I haven't looked at this nearly closely enough, and am certainly willing to believe there may be organic molecules on Mars that didn't come from recent asteroid hits or whatever, but your link left me confused, especially this:

Scientists repeated a key Viking experiment using perchlorate-enhanced soil from Chile's Atacama Desert, which is considered one of the driest and most Mars-like places on Earth, and found telltale fingerprints of combusted organics -- the same chemicals Viking scientists dismissed as contaminants from Earth.

I'm sure there's a more in-depth explanation that makes more sense but I'm not getting it at the moment. How does an experiment using soil from Earth count as evidence that a similar experimental result on Mars was *not* the result of contaminants from Earth?
posted by mediareport at 6:38 PM on December 3, 2012


I get that we really want to know if there is or was life on Mars (I include me in that we), but I wonder if the question would have as much scientific import or gravity if not for our culture's long history of oppressively enforcing geocentric religious dogma.

I mean, we have some pretty reasonable theories about how life arose on earth, and it seems more likely than not that these same or similar processes have happened or are happening somewhere else, so even if we do confirm there is/was life on Mars, does all that much hinge on that confirmation on the long run?
posted by treepour at 6:49 PM on December 3, 2012


NASA ANNOUNCEMENT PRESS KIT (check one)
   ___ ALIENS
   _X_ NOT ALIENS

posted by ceribus peribus at 7:10 PM on December 3, 2012 [13 favorites]


Huffington's (gak!) explanation is a little clearer:

The only organic chemicals identified in soil samples from the Viking landers were chloromethane and dicholormethane – non-biological chlorine compounds believed at the time to have been caused by a contamination from cleaning fluid.

The matter was revisited after a surprise finding in samples returned by Nasa’s Phoenix Mars Lander in 2008 – namely perchlorate.

When perchlorate was added to desert soil from Chile containing organics and analysed in the same manner of the Viking tests, the same compounds identified in the Viking samples were found.

posted by saulgoodman at 7:31 PM on December 3, 2012 [3 favorites]


Popular Science (gak! again) also reported on a related new study that suggests one of the tests Viking conducted that was dismissed as a fluke at the time may not have been, based on statistical analysis. The idea here (I think) is that with the added perchlorate (which has now been confirmed as present in the Martian soil), the earth microbes became reactive in a way that produced exactly the chemicals that the Viking lander found. So, since those chemicals are present in the soil along with the perchlorate, it hints at the possibility of a biological rather than a geological process producing them. Like I said, it's not air-tight or open and shut, but it's definitely more evidence consistent with the idea of biological activity producing those potentially biologically-produced chemicals we now do know are there.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:44 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Every single goddamn thing this rover does is fucking amazing. It's on another goddamn planet driving the fuck around looking at shit, sending us amazing fucking photos. Goddamn.
posted by odinsdream at 8:18 PM on December 3, 2012 [21 favorites]


Gotta be careful. Space is full of organics. It'd be almost impossible for none of them to wind up on Mars. Not to mention meteorites from Earth.
posted by Twang at 8:53 PM on December 3, 2012


Actually, if I'm understanding the PopSci article correctly, it was microbial activity--not simply the presence of organics--that produced the positive results.
The new analysis centers on one of the three experiments carried by the probe: the Labeled Release (LR) experiment. This instrument searched for signs of life by mixing samples of Martian soil with droplets of water containing nutrients and radioactive carbon. If the soil contained microbes, the reasoning went, they would metabolize these carbon atoms and nutrients and release either methane gas or radioactive carbon dioxide, either of which would tip off the probes that life existed in the soil.

That’s exactly what happened. But other experiments aboard Viking didn’t back up the LR, and NASA scientists had to dismiss the LR’s findings as anomalous.

Also, from Phys.org:
In 1976 the NASA Viking landers took samples of soil on Mars and tested them for signs of organic carbon. A reinterpretation of the results now suggests the samples did contain organic compounds, but the results were not understood because of the strong oxidation effects of perchlorate, a salt now known to be found in Martian soils.

....

In the Viking tests the Martian soil was heated sufficiently to vaporize organic molecules in the soil and the resultant gases and vapors were analyzed by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. Chlorohydrocarbons were found at landing site 1 and 2, but they were dismissed at the time as terrestrial contaminants, even though they were not found at the same levels in blank runs.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:05 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Look, I know that you mean well and you're excited and everything, but wake me for one of two bits of news from Mars:

1) Prothean ruins

2) Dr. Manhattan
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:10 PM on December 3, 2012


I'm actually not as excited as you seem to think. But thank God I'm not so jaded as to think this is yawn-worthy.

If PopSci's reporting is right, when the Viking experiments were reproduced on Earth taking the presence of perchlorates in the soil into account, the results weren't just consistent with the presence of organics, but with microbiological activity specifically (but then, PopSci is PopSci).
posted by saulgoodman at 9:18 PM on December 3, 2012


The interesting take home point for me is that the original viking lander results were popularly dismissed as being due to Earth contaminants on the basis of skeptical speculation alone, even when experimental controls provided evidence otherwise (the blank runs).
posted by saulgoodman at 9:20 PM on December 3, 2012


It is amazing when landing a fully functional robotic mobile science lab with HD cameras on fucking Mars is not an earth-shaking achievement in itself.

Let's not feel cheated when it doesn't turn into Jodie Foster two months into the mission. This robot will be a game changer one way or another. But it is all alone! Yoda-strength patience is required.
posted by Camofrog at 9:24 PM on December 3, 2012 [2 favorites]


Several of the articles mentioned that they have to confirm that the detected carbon and chlorine didn't come from Earth.

But they don't say what that would mean if they can confirm this. Of course they are not going to speculate about something they haven't proven yet. But can someone else do this speculating? What would it mean if the carbon and chlorine they found is native to Mars?

Does this have something to do with that phrase we always hear in science fiction movies "carbon based life forms"?
posted by eye of newt at 9:51 PM on December 3, 2012


There was life on Mars, but that ended 5,800 years ago. Maybe it was 6,800 years ago. Anyhow, they left one Thursday afternoon and landed here, on Earth, somewhere in the Middle East. They brought their dinosaurs with them.

The rest is History.
posted by mule98J at 10:33 PM on December 3, 2012


Boy cries wolf, has a few laughs....
posted by telstar at 12:45 AM on December 4, 2012


I can imagine how excited Carl Sagan was by the initial findings of the Viking lander only to have the hopes dashed by the worry of Earthly contaminants. It would be a better world were he still alive to see that the results were more than likely correct. In fact it would be a better world to share *every* new discovery with Carl Sagan but since that's not possible I will sit down with my son and watch Cosmos again this weekend.
posted by longbaugh at 1:24 AM on December 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


China wants to grow vegies on Mars.
Marsh fresh!
posted by Mezentian at 4:29 AM on December 4, 2012


Several of the articles mentioned that they have to confirm that the detected carbon and chlorine didn't come from Earth.

But they don't say what that would mean if they can confirm this.


It would mean there's a pretty good chance of active microbiological activity on Mars. So for many people, no matter what evidence NASA might find, it won't be enough. (For example, in the Viking case, NASA ran several blank runs of the same tests and detected no contamination of the testing equipment, but the idea that the positive test results came from terrestrial contamination still took hold with the public and drove the media narrative, despite being based on nothing more than the speculation of skeptics.)

People can convince themselves of anything they want to believe; we recognize this when non-evidence based beliefs are held by a minority (flat earthers and moon-hoaxers, for instance), but we have a much harder time acknowledging it when a non-evidence based belief or story gets legs and becomes the accepted wisdom.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:14 AM on December 4, 2012


I can imagine how excited Carl Sagan was by the initial findings of the Viking lander only to have the hopes dashed by the worry of Earthly contaminants

Hopes dashed?

"Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence."
-Carl Sagan
posted by eriko at 7:39 AM on December 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, but you're assuming the idea that life could exist off earth is an extraordinary claim... Which is a belief more rooted in cultural tradition and Judeo-Christian tradition than in scientific fact.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:26 AM on December 4, 2012


Wikipedia needs a list of "world changing discoveries that have not been debunked or repeated". The Viking methane results would go on there. So would my personal favorite, the Wow! signal. That's where one of our radio telescopes heard pretty much exactly the signal we would expect from an alien species light-years distant sending out a message directed our way. The analysis indicates that it almost certainly isn't a reflection from an Earth source.

But it hasn't been repeated, so no dice. We've looked all over for it and haven't found it again.

I would make that wikipedia page, but I'm so, so lazy.
posted by BeeDo at 8:29 AM on December 4, 2012


By definition, shouldn't it be considered an extraordinary claim that the phenomenon of biological life on Earth is completely novel? Sure, UFOs and alien conspiracies in the absence of evidence are clearly extraordinary claims, but the claim that something so special happened in one tiny corner of the universe that could never, ever happen anywhere else is a pretty damn extraordinary claim, too, I'd say.

I wouldn't put these results in the same category as the Wow! signal. That's often held up as evidence of an intelligent alien species trying to communicate with others. That's definitely an extraordinary claim.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:30 AM on December 4, 2012


With a sample size of just one either way, why would one be more likely than the other?

But I wasn't trying to say they were equivalent, just that they fit the same broad category. Cold fusion would fit in that category too, though towards the "almost entirely debunked as a source of energy, but something interesting does appear to be happening" side, while the Mars methane would slide towards the "evidence continues to mount in favor of this being true".
posted by BeeDo at 9:03 AM on December 4, 2012


By definition, shouldn't it be considered an extraordinary claim that the phenomenon of biological life on Earth is completely novel?

If we think about the existence of all life in the universe across all time, then at the beginning of life's appearance in the universe we must consider that one particular planet was first. Though statistically it's unlikely to be us, one of those depressing ideas I toss around sometimes is the possibility that our civilization actually is the most advanced in the universe.

This is often too depressing to consider for more than a few minutes.
posted by odinsdream at 10:02 AM on December 4, 2012


then at the beginning of life's appearance in the universe we must consider that one particular planet was first.

That's a logical fallacy older than Aquinas called "The Birthday Fallacy." From science, we've learned that all similar phenomena don't necessarily trace back to a single source. It's like saying, Prometheus must have brought fire down from heaven, because we had to get it from somewhere, so there must have been one first fire. No, we didn't and there wasn't. Fire just happens. And it can happen for all sorts of different reasons and in all sorts of different places.

In a universe our size, in other words, life could have formed contemporaneously on billions of different worlds.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:23 AM on December 4, 2012


If we're going to argue from "why should the Earth be so special?", then why should we be looking for the presence of carbon and water as the indicators of life?
posted by benito.strauss at 12:12 PM on December 4, 2012


As I understand it, it's not just the presence of those elements, it's the fact that known biological processes on Earth, associated with the presence of those elements, produced the specific results the Viking Lander observed, once the control tests back on Earth were adjusted to account for the presence of perchlorates in the soil on Mars.

But sure, I grant the gist of your point. The short answer is, without a clear idea of what to test for, how do we design the test? The only life we've observed here on Earth requires carbon and water. Without some basic idea what we're looking for, how could we ever construct a test to tell us it's there?
posted by saulgoodman at 12:46 PM on December 4, 2012


One last bit of "puzzling evidence" to consider and then I've got to stop pontificating on the subject and get a life: Even Planets with Thin Atmospheres Could Host Life.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:25 PM on December 4, 2012


That's a logical fallacy older than Aquinas called "The Birthday Fallacy."

I feel less depressed now. Pigeonhole Principle
posted by odinsdream at 1:37 PM on December 4, 2012


A "not insignificant" defense of gleeful scientists
posted by homunculus at 2:41 PM on December 4, 2012


The Opportunity Rover is Alive and Well and Living on Mars
posted by homunculus at 10:38 AM on December 5, 2012


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