Saturday, February 16, 2008

Pouring salt on Mars

The continuing seesaw of evidence for and against life on Mars (past or present) took another swing back toward the negative today when NASA announced new findings from the Opportunity rover. While both rovers on Mars continue to accumulate compelling evidence that the planet was once awash with water, the data from Opportunity seems to suggest that this water would have been very salty and acidic, which would be far from ideal for live to prosper. However, let's not get too despondent. News stories published today all seem to be keen to headline the negative, but read the details and it's not at all cut and dry. Yes, the water would have been pretty nasty, but Rover team member Dr Andrew Knoll is reported as saying "It was really salty - in fact, it was salty enough that only a handful of known terrestrial organisms would have a ghost of a chance of surviving there when conditions were at their best." So not a slam-dunk for the absence of life. Something could have survived, and lets not forget either that Opportunity has surveyed a tiny fraction of the land surface of Mars. Were an alien probe to land in some of the truly inhospitable locations on earth, it would send back gloomy messages as well. This case is definitely not closed.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Nicolas Sarkozy urges Mars vision

Visiting the Ariane rocket launch site in French Guiana, French president Nicolas Sarkozy urged great international cooperation on a Mars mission. Said Sarkozy, "I am convinced that an exploration programme can only be global, without exclusivity or appropriation by one nation or another... Each will be able to take part with their capabilities, their strengths and their choices." Sarkozy pointed out that Europe boasted "skills in robotic exploration, transport and technology", while the US had the dollars and would bring "technical and scientific competences" to the project. Sarkozy said he would ask the ESA and European Union to "co-operate on a framework for dialogue with the US and other space powers on a joint initiative".

Cooperation needed for Mars

A conference of 50 astronauts, public interest advocates, aerospace industry executives and scientists meeting at Stanford University have urged the US government to consider greater co-operation with space faring nations if the goal of sending humans to Mars is to be achieved by the early 2030's. According to figures released by the conference, the US is about 3 billion dollars a year short of the needed funds to achieve its aims. Plans to return first to the Moon were also criticised as a distraction from the greater goal of sending humans to Mars.