The news channels have been full of it – that water occasionally flows on the surface of Mars. The scientists have deduced this is possible by the changing patterns of dark streaks on the planet’s surface over the past 15 years. Even better they have identified salts lying on the surface that induce the water (magnesium perchlorate, chlorate and chloride) to drop the freezing point of water to 80 degrees and the vaporisation by a factor of 10. It is thought these salts actually pull water out of the thin Martian atmosphere. Which all adds to liquid water sticking to the surface.
But what about the implications that where there’s water there’s likely to be microbial life? Will they not contaminate any humans who happen to drop by? And what us contaminating Mars?
Well here’s the thing…
We have for a long time been receiving meteorites from the Martian surface. Although a lot of material is open to vacuum during flight that would kill off air-breathing microbes, we know some microbes exist that don’t need to breath any air. These microbes could have tucked themselves into the meteoroid’s deep crevices and made the journey to Earth. That means Mars’ ordinary microbes could have found themselves still alive after reaching Earth. Either way cross-contamination will have occurred between Earth and Mars. So there should be no problem with sending humans to Mars.
But how can we find out for sure?
The scientists could re-examine the meteorites known to have come from Mars to Earth for any evidence of the transfer of microbial life. There would know far better than I what evidence to look for.
It’s the obvious next step, so I’m surprised that I haven’t found any announcement to that effect amongst all the fanfare.
The data download from New Horizons continues to amaze. Quite a lot more detail has been identified on Pluto and its biggest moon Charon.
Whilst there are 17 known solid crystalline phases of water, the only one that is likely to found on the surface is Ice XI – An orhtorhombic low-temperature equilibrium form of hexagonal ice. It is ferroelectric i.e. has a spontaneous electric polarisation that can be reversed by the application of an external electric field. Ice XI is considered the most stable configuration of ice Ih.
I’d love to know what the electromagnetic interaction between the solar wind and Ice XI is, and how it is affecting Pluto, particularly as it has such an eccentric orbit around the Sun and actually spins on its axis. This is a major difference from Triton, which comprises similar materials, but within Neptune’s magnetosphere.
[I have an interest in Triton because of the C.A.T. series of books, so it’s only natural that I should do a comparison.]
What this solar wind to Ice XI connection means is there is room for an interesting short story. I’m sure someone somewhere must be writing one…