Mars News and Media Mistakes

Clearing the Dusty Air about Mars

The atmosphere of Mars as seen from the MOM Color Camera. Courtesy ISRO.

Mars is in the news these days due to a major dust storm. These things happen on the Red Planet, which tells us it’s a living world in more ways than we used to think. The storm presents a fantastic opportunity to learn more about the atmospheric dynamics of the place. NASA scientists (as well as those from the European Space Agency) are following the storm with much interest, and NASA gave a press conference to talk about it. There should be some interesting news in the future, once they get the data sorted out from the various mission at the planet.

Dust storms can flare up in Mars during any season. Winds blow a lot on the planet, and there are small, localized storms and disturbances all the time. However, sometimes the smaller ones can blow up to become regional storms in a very short time. Less frequently, they expand to cover the planet. The most massive ones happen once every three or four Mars years and rage around for weeks to months.

Future inhabitants of the Red Planet will have to plan accordingly! The current inhabitants—rovers and orbiters—are experiencing it now and providing info for the future. The latest storm is rampaging around above the Mars Opportunity Rover and is enveloping about a quarter of the planet. Luckily, Opportunity is deep into hibernation to conserve battery power. Once the storm passes, scientists will have a chance to wake her up again and hope that her solar panels aren’t too dusted over to get some sunlight.

She’s Not Dead

Two views of the Martian dust storm from Curiosity rover. NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

There has been a lot of ferment in the media, and particularly in social media, about how Opportunity has “died” or is being “killed” by the dust storm. It hasn’t died, but as far as I can tell from NASA sources, the rover is in danger if the storm continues for very long. That’s because its solar panels need sunlight to recharge the batteries. Right now, it’s too early to ring the death knell for Oppy. But, clickbait-hungry advertisers and commentators are posting about its demise.

Let me say it again: Opportunity is, as far as we know, not dead. Just sleeping. Hopefully, she is simply powered down. For now, though, she’s not responding, so that’s the best interpretation. We won’t know more until the storm passes. So, stay tuned for further news.

The other rover, Curiosity, isn’t quite so affected, but the storm is sending a bit of dust her way. So far that rover is working fine. A fleet of orbiters is monitoring the storm and sending back images and data. Hopefully, all the data from this latest event will give scientists more insight into Martian storms.

Methane Measurements on Mars

The other Mars news that came out last week is about chemicals on Mars. It got mangled by the mainstream media almost immediately. And, I am not just talking about papers without science writers. The BBC and the New York Times (among others) sent out rapt, sensationalist announcements that life had been found on Mars. I read the press release (you can, too, here) and it was pretty clear to me that nobody said that life had been found. Nor has proof of life been found.

There are actually two findings. One is about more measurements of methane emissions coming from the Martian surface. Methane has a variety of sources, not all of them alive. Geologically, it can come from non-biological sources, such as chemical processes beneath the surface of a planet. It can also come from life-based processes. On Mars, nobody knows exactly (yet) what the source of methane is. They just know that it’s there in the atmosphere. Mars has seasonal variations in its atmospheric methane, measured by spacecraft and the lander. Once scientists get a handle on where it’s coming from on (or under the surface of) Mars, then they can make some confident predictions about what caused the methane to exist. But, we’re far from that. The long story is: we know that methane is there. Figuring out its source is going to need more measurements, more digging, more studies. That’s just the way science works.

Life??? Again??? Not so Fast.

But, let’s get to the second part of the NASA story from last week that led to a bunch of incorrect headlines about life on Mars. Essentially, the Curiosity rover was studying rocks that it dug up and found evidence in those rocks of “tough” organic molecules. The rocks that evidence exists in are three billion years old. They’re sedimentary rocks. That means they are layers of rock and sand, put into place either through wind or water action.

What are organic molecules? In the science of organic chemistry, organic molecules contain carbon and hydrogen. They might also have oxygen, nitrogen, and other trace elements. As any chemistry student can tell you, those molecules aren’t alive. They’re molecules of elements. To be sure, life NEEDS those molecules to exist, but it’s a huge step to go from a spoonful of molecules (or even a bucketful or an ocean full) to life. The presence of these molecules may well point to a time on the very early Mars of three billion years ago when life could have existed. So could the methane. But, the presence of those on Mars doesn’t prove life existed there. At least, not yet. We need a lot more data and absolute evidence of life (such as clear and obvious fossils) to prove that life DID exist on Mars.

The Correct Headline: More Organic Molecules Found in Mars Rocks and Atmosphere

That’s the story: organic molecules and methane exist on Mars. As one of the NASA scientists (Jen Eigenbrode of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center) said very clearly, “Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules. Whether it holds a record of ancient life, was food for life, or has existed in the absence of life, organic matter in Martian materials holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes.”

It’s important to remember that these are steps of exploration of a distant world. This is the way science works, by small steps and gains in understanding. Eventually, proof of life (or the fact that it never existed) on Mars will come. But, it hasn’t happened yet, despite what otherwise respectable news outlets said in misleading clickbait headlines and stories.

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