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9-20-01

NASA's "Search for Life" a Charade

Since the Viking craft set sail for Mars in the mid-70s, NASA has justified its interest in the Red Planet as the continued "search for life." But as new and better spacecraft are deployed to Mars, it has become painfully clear that NASA's desire to look for life on Mars is at best a public relations charade.

In 1976, in a woefully overlooked abuse of science, evidence for biochemistry in the Martian soil was ignored after the Viking landers provided positive results for two of three onboard experiments designed to detect subsurface microbial life.

Hungarian scientists have publicly commented that "spots" similar to these may represent macroscopic Martian lifeforms.

More recently, noted scientist and author Arthur C. Clarke's remarks about apparent plantlife on Mars have been roundly ignored despite high-resolution images that clearly show unknown phenomena that might be explained in exobiological terms. In the meantime, additional evidence for Mars as a living planet continues to mount, with Russian astronomers reporting the presence of organic pigment in the Martian atmosphere and a team of Hungarian scientists concluding that the exotic-looking "Dalmatian spots" on Mars are likely large colonies of moss or fungi adapted to the extreme cold.

Possible plantlife near Mars' south pole.

The battle over the biochemical results obtained in the 70s continues with rekindled vigor. NASA has been flatly accused of allowing its biased preconceptions of Mars as a lifeless, Moon-like world to infect its public presentation of Mars. NASA spokesmen are unanimous that the discovery of Martian life would be excellent for NASA's planetary science budget. But after examining NASA's history of conscientiously dodging the life on Mars inquiry, one wonders just how "desirable" the discovery of life on Mars actually is.

That NASA considers the "Face" and other anomalies to be naturally occurring landforms almost goes without saying, despite the singularly disturbing fact that NASA has yet to perform any sort of reviewable scientific study that would bear out this position. The new overhead image of the Face was written off as natural because, according to one space agency employee, it "reminds" him of a natural formation here on Earth; to say this pronouncement mocks scientific method is probably an understatement.

Additional curious "growths" on Mars.

But while a spectator can see how the presence of possible monumental architecture might weigh too heavily on existing paradigms to be taken seriously by officialdom, hotly "debunking" possible Martian "plants" is more difficult to understand. Curiously, it was NASA itself that proudly sported the ALH 84001 meteorite as evidence of past life (never mind the fact that the British had life-indicating meteorites catalogued and filed a decade previously).

NASA is best viewed as a collection of disparate teams, each with their own prejudices and budget pressures. For the last 25 years, NASA's Mars program has been handled exclusively through the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The Mars scientists at JPL are geologists, as is Dr. Michael Malin, controversial "owner" of the Mars Orbiter Camera aboard the Surveyor spacecraft. JPL officials realize all too well how precarious their situation might become if life is detected on Mars: inevitably, biologists would be called in, adding competition for the already overburdened Mars research budget.

The dichotomy is less a matter of whether or not there is life on Mars -- and the best evidence currently indicates there is -- than a hideously simple matter of staying employed. Priorities shift -- but only if those in charge allow them to. In Mars' case, admitting evidence favorable to life or speculating on the possibility only detracts attention from the prevailing geological agenda.

Even a jaded public finds the prospect of Martian life interesting and worthy of pursuit. NASA and JPL have simply capitalized on the implications of the idea to promote an endless convoy of geological survey craft. And so the so-called "search for life" goes on. And on.

Indeed, the "Search for Life" has become NASA/JPL's public relations catch-phrase. Unfortunately, like most catch phrases, it rings hollow upon close examination. If anything is needed to catalyze planetary exploration, a field that stagnated with the demise of the Apollo program in the early 70s, it is the discovery of life on our sister planet. But until science can muster the foresight and savvy necessary to exploit the strong possibility of Martian lifeforms, crewed missions to Mars will remain purely fanciful. It is crucial that "office politics" are not allowed to play a central role in the future of human Mars exploration.


9-27-01

Lan Fleming Responds to NASA's Peculiar "Life on Mars" Perspective

[Lan Fleming is a member of the Society for Planetary SETI Research and a contributor to "The Case for the Face." I extend my thanks for letting me post his essay on the Cydonian Imperative. Visit his website at www.vgl.org. --M.T.]

Dr. Timothy Titus of the USGS wrote an article denouncing "glaring scientific errors" of the Hungarian scientists who recently proposed a biological explanation for the dark spots that form on martian dunes in the south polar region. Titus says the paper is "riddled" with errors.

The article is at:

http://www.spacedaily.com/news/mars-life-01h.html

The Hungarian paper is at:

Rick Sterling, reported on the Cydonia email list contacted Titus and informed him of Zuber's opinion. Most astoundingly, Titus' reply was:

"This result is not unexpected. My boss, Dr. Hugh H. Kieffer, has claimed that the residual south cap is water ice with a thin layer of CO2 ice covering it. Of course - he had no proof to base this belief until now. He also believes that there is a 100 year cycle where every 100 years, the CO2 ice completely disappears - revealing the water ice. This may have happened in 1969."

How could he possibly say this so blandly when he has just written an article denouncing the work of someone for expressing an so opinion similar to that of his own boss? This is totally mind-boggling.

The third "error" Titus attributed to the Hungarians was: "water ice does exist on Mars, but sublimates around -100F (-73C), due to the low atmospheric pressure of 6.1 mbars. Earth has a surface pressure of 1000 mbars."

Titus own claim is in itself is a "glaring scientific error" that I might expect from an unmotivated kid in a highschool physics class, but not from a Ph.D. astrogeologist with the United States Geological Survey, presumably getting paid to study Mars. As a casual glance at the water phase diagram shows, water ice is stable at Mars atmospheric pressures and temperatures up to 0 degrees Celsius, and will even melt rather than sublimate within a narrow range of temperatures. I don't know where Titus got his numbers from. He might have confused the CO2 phase diagram with the one for water. CO2 sublimates at -78 C, but at Earth atmospheric pressure, not Mars.

If this is the quality of thought behind the research being done on the data collected by the MGS, the entire project is a waste of taxpayer's money. If, on the other hand, Titus knew what he said is false, which I suspect is the case, then his article was deliberate disinformation. It certainly does nothing to allay suspicions that JPL and geologists politically aligned with them are desperate to prevent biologists from getting involved in planetary research.

Fortunately, while people associated with the MGS mission like Titus engage in shrill and disingenuous attacks on other scientists with different points of view, the European Space Agency seems to be taking the rational approach one would expect from a scientific organization. They aren't proclaiming that the Hungarians have demonstrated "proof" of life on Mars; they've merely said the evidence and arguments presented for life appear interesting enough to deserve further investigation.

[NASA's disturbing behavior surrounding the issue of life on Mars (see previous article) is shown in this recent example. The Formal Action Committee for Extraterrestrial Studies is currently pursuing a responsible public dialogue with NASA. --M.T.]


10-2-01

Face on Mars Conforms to Mathematically "Perfect" Visage

The Discovery Channel has posted a fascinating science news piece suggesting that an archetypal human face is "wetwired" into our brains and that a given face's beauty (and hence its desirability) can be encoded using the Golden Ratio. The Golden Ratio is a mathematical device well-known for its applications in ancient architecture.

Former plastic surgeon Dr. Stephen Marquerdt has generated a "wireframe"-like mask to illustrate the "perfect" human face. In the graphic below, Chris Joseph has superimposed the Golden Ratio-derived face on the Face on Mars, using the Face's right "eyeball" as a reference point. There are several intriguing correlations that suggest that the Face, far from being a randomly eroded mesa, is in fact a deliberately sculpted humanoid visage.

Joseph's superimposition confirms the aesthetic analysis of the Face conducted by James Channon twenty years ago, using Viking imagery. Working with the existing imagery of the time, Channon concluded that the Mars face was most likely artificial based on proportion, expression and supposed cultural location.

The Face's apparent hominid/feline duality poses interesting hurdles for the straight-forward approach used by Joseph. Mark Carlotto, who pioneered the use of computer analysis for study of the Cydonia enigmas, will soon have an authoritative paper online addressing the first (and only) high-resolution full-frontal overhead photo of the Face.


10-23-01

Mars Odyssey Spacecraft in Orbit

The Mars Odyssey spacecraft in orbit.

The Mars Odyssey spacecraft, NASA's first Mars probe since the ill-fated Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander, has successfully entered Mars' orbit. Although the Odyssey is not equipped with a camera (such as the MOC aboard the still-functional Mars Global Surveyor), it is hoped that the Odyssey's mission objectives will further our understanding of Mars' geological past. As previously discussed [see "NASA's 'Search for Life' a Charade" (above)], I think the enigma of probable life on Mars outweighs the demand for geological study. The Mars Odyssey mission, while certain to tell us some interesting things, is not the sort of survey craft warranted by the evidence at hand. Bleakly, NASA shows every indication of following up on Odyssey with "more of the same."

The Beagle 2 lander shown deploying its solar panels.

Nevertheless, the UK's upcoming Beagle 2 mission (to be launched in June of 2003) is specifically designed to search for life in the Martian soil. Its findings may well turn the tide of Mars research toward biology -- and the acceptance of Martian biology is one step closer to the acceptance of the prospect of intelligence.

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