October 2, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Mars Life Would Spit Out the Water

Finding minimal amounts of salty water contaminated with perchorates is not helpful to life.

The optimistic astrobiology reporter Pallab Ghosh at the BBC is at it again, tantalizing readers with thoughts of Martians. In his piece “Is there life on Mars?” he retells the history of his optimistic antecedent, Percival Lowell, who spent his fortune seeking the “canals” on Mars that he mistranslated from Schiaparelli’s map. Ghosh whisks the reader along to Vikings 1 and 2 that, in 1976, seemed to present negative results on the life question. But now, he says, new findings about gullies on some craters has provided “The strongest evidence yet that water still flows on the Martian surface.” And everyone knows what that means:

BM-EmperorCharlie-smFor there to be life, there needs to be liquid water. Evidence for that has been growing and earlier this week Nasa [sic] seemed to have the the strongest evidence yet that some is still there – albeit in small amounts.The discovery confirms that the Red Planet is still geologically active and, tantalisingly, it increases the possibility that it may currently harbour simple living organisms….

The discovery confirms that the Red Planet is still geologically active and, tantalisingly, it increases the possibility that it may currently harbour simple living organisms.

Ghosh seems to have an affection for the word “tantalizing” which is mostly what he does in his article. He ends with a quote that tantalizes the imagination:

If we find life on Mars and it can be shown to be of a different origin to that on Earth, then that essentially means that the Universe is teeming with life. It seems almost impossible that life could spring up by chance on two adjacent planets if life was rare.

But can two examples in the same solar system around one star mean the universe is teeming with life? Looks like a bad case of extrapolation. As for life springing up by chance, maybe he needs to think a little about the numbers (see online book).

Ghosh’s imagination sprang from water to life (hydrobioscopy). What if the water is so bad, Martians would spit it out? Nadia Drake at National Geographic is a tad more realistic:

You might think that the first human explorers on Mars will park next to a salty stream and use it to manufacture fresh drinking water. Maybe they could even find life in damp Martian nooks and crannies, areas where the dusty red planet can still fuel microbes.

Reality is much more subtle. Finding evidence for flowing water is not the same as finding life. Right now, scientists don’t know where this water is coming from, or if the chemistry in these Martian seeps is even life-friendly. And unfortunately, chances are it will be a long time before we can get there to find out.

Drake also points to evidence from Earth that is not encouraging to Mars-lifers:

[Chris] McKay notes that the type of salts near the Martian streaks, called perchlorates, form different watery mixtures than the salts we’re most used to on Earth. In fact, it’s possible the perchlorate streaks could behave similarly to Antarctica’s Don Juan Pond, which is the saltiest liquid water body on Earth—and totally dead.

“Such a brine is not suitable for life and is of no interest biologically,” McKay says. “Nothing can live in the brine of Don Juan Pond.”

Jonathan Amos at the BBC News is also optimistic about water and life, but realistic about the chance of finding it on Mars without contaminating the planet with our own germs. “Wherever there’s water, there’s a good chance life can thrive,” he tantalizes, but then descends into the depressing realities of trying to get close to those crater slopes with spacecraft to check them out.

Maybe instead we should just look for Martians on Earth. PhysOrg published an article titled, “Rock samples from Western US teach how to hunt for life on Mars.” This article even got religion:

The search for life beyond Earth is one of the grandest endeavors in the history of humankind—a quest that could transform our understanding of our universe both scientifically and spiritually.

One again, tantalizing suggestions tempt the reader to think that if water is there, life must exist (or at least be possible). The NASA announcement, though, presents “salty” water. Salt is not good for cells trying to emerge (4/15/02). Perchlorates are worse.

Since it’s so hard to study Mars directly, there’s an easier way: study rocks that look like fossil microbial mats. Stromatolites, the “apartment buildings” of microbes could, in the meantime, teach scientists how to use instruments to detect life if they ever find similar rocks on Mars and return them to Earth some day. They could, that is, if scientists find a way to distinguish them:

She [Alison Olcott-Marshall, U of Kansas] said microbial and non-microbial rocks are found in similar environments, with identical preservation histories for millions of years, and many of the same chemical parameters, such as amounts of organic carbon preserved in the rocks.

Let’s say we get a sample return from the 2020 Mars mission, and it has a layered appearance. We will still only look “tantalizingly” like maybe there might have been perhaps life once upon a time on Mars, but they won’t know, because it could be “non-microbial.”

All this hydrobioscopy depends on clean water. Chris McKay, despite his optimism, knows that. In Live Science‘s piece “Why is water so essential to life,” he compares water to other liquids like methane, for which we have no evidence life could make something of it instead of water. The article admits, though, that “the briny flows” detected by NASA “may be too full of chlorine-based salts to support life” — how then, exactly, does this “raise the odds that Mars could have life right now”?

Perhaps Mars had a lot more water in the past. Or maybe it’s there and we just can’t see it.

Researchers in Barcelona are revisiting accounts of Martian megafloods, inferring past events from geological evidence. Science Daily ups the perhapsimaybecouldness index:

A recent study puts forward a new explanation for the Martian megafloods: enormous discharges of subterranean water that dug out the biggest flood channels in the solar system over 3 billion years ago….

In the words of the Geology Department researchers, “Our research suggests that, given that the process was regional rather than global, there could still be large reservoirs of subterranean water trapped under the surface of Mars, in the areas around the old northern ocean, or in other parts of the planet where seas and lakes formed at the same time.” “Traces of ancient environments capable of sustaining life forms similar to those on Earth could have been preserved in sub-surface materials that are now exposed,” claim R. Linares and M. Zarroca. “The results obtained could have clear implications both for exobiological research and for future human activity on Mars.”

These researchers think the floods were local rather than global, resulting from oceans, lakes and glaciers. One of their illustrations superimposes the estimated Martian floods over Europe, showing large parts of Spain, France and eastern Europe inundated.

It’s evident that much of astrobiology depends on divination techniques deriving from the imaginations of their own hearts (1/17/07 commentary). They imagine themselves gaining understanding, both scientifically and spiritually. Since spirits are not made of atoms, these prophets betray their dependence on imaginary religions of their own devising.

 

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