What do Organic Compounds Found on Mars Mean?

Last week, NASA announced that organic compounds had been found on Mars. The question then is, what does this mean? First, organic compounds are essentially chemicals formed that involve carbon, which means Mars has carbon besides the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The name “organic” comes from the fact that such compounds found by early chemists, with the exception of a very few such as carbon dioxide, came from organisms, hence there is the question, do these materials indicate that Mars had life? The short answer is, the issue remains unresolved. One argument is that if there were no organic compounds on Mars, it obviously did not have life. That it has taken so long to find organic compounds does not say anything about the probability, though, because the surface of Mars is strongly oxidizing, and had any been there, they would have been turned into carbon dioxide. The atmosphere already has a lot of that. The reason none has been found, therefore, is because most of the rovers have not been able to dig very deeply.

I shall try to summarise the results that were reported [Eigenbrode et al., Science 360, 1096–1101 (2018)]. One important point is that the volatiles analysed were obtained by pyrolysing the mudstone the rover dug up, so what was detected may not be the same that was in the rock. The first compounds were identified as aliphatic hydrocarbons, from C1 (methane) to C5, and these were stated to be typical of that obtained from Kerogen or coal on Earth. One problem I had with these data was there were odd-numbered masses, BUT they all indicated that the cause was a fractured hydrocarbon, i.e. the pyrolysis had chopped that bit off something else and produced a radical.

One big problem was they could not say whether nitrogen or oxygen was present ” because mass spectra are not resolvable in EGA and other molecules share the diagnostic m/z values. ” I really don’t understand that. First, the identification of aliphatic hydrocarbons was almost certainly correct, because they form series of signals that are very recognizable to anyone who has done a bit of this work before. They stick out like an organ stop, so to speak. However, the presence of nitrogen species in any reasonable amount should be just as easily identified because while hydrocarbons, and their like with oxygen, basically give even mass signals, nitrogen, because of its valency of 3, gives odd numbered mass signals that is 1 bigger than a hydrocarbon. Now, a few of the fragmentation patterns of hydrocarbons give odd numbered mass signals, but if you cannot tell where the molecular ion is, you do not know what the mass of your molecule is. If all you have are fragmentation ions, then the instrument was somewhat poorly designed to go to Mars. With any experience, you can also tell whether you have oxygenated materials because hydrocarbons go up by adding 14 to the basic ion, and the atomic weight of oxygen is 16. If it has oxygen, it abd the fragments containing oxygen have an entirely different mass.

Of course the authors did note the presence of CO2 and CO. These could arise from the pyrolysis of carboxylic acids and ketones, but that does not mean life. Carboxylic acids would pyrolyse at about 400 – 550 degrees C and ketones a bit higher. They also found aromatic hydrocarbons, thiophenes and some other sulphur containing species. These were explained in terms of sulphur –bearing gases coming in contact, and further chemical reactions then taking place, in other words, these sulphur containing species such as hydrogen sulphide do not necessarily provide any information regarding what formed the original deposit. The sulphurization, however, was claimed to provide a preservative function by protecting against mild oxidation. If it carried out that function, it would be oxidized, and none of the observed materials were.

Unfortunately, the material is not directly associated with anything related to life. The remains of life can give rise to these sort of chemicals, as noted by our crude oil, which is basically hydrocarbon, and formed from life, but then altered by tens of millions of years change. These Martian deposits are believed to be in rocks 3.5 billion years old. However, the materials were also obtained by pyrolysis at temperatures exceeding 500 degrees C. The original molecules could have rearranged, and what we saw was the sort of compounds that organic compounds might rearrange to. Nevertheless, the absence of nitrogen is not encouraging. Nitrogen is present in all protein and nucleic acids, and there tends to be high levels of these in primitive life. Pyrolysis would be expected to produce pyrazines and pyridines, and these should be detectable. Pyrazines, having two nitrogen atoms, tend to give even numbered ions, and give the same mass as a ketone, but since neither was seen, that is irrelevant. Had there been such signals, the fragmentation patterns are quite distinctive if you have done this sort of work before.

Other possible sources of organic compounds, besides carbon, are from chondrites that have landed, and geochemically. It is hard to assess chondrites, because we do not have other information. It is possible to tell the difference between oxygen from chondrites from oxygen from other places (because of the different ratios of isotopes of mass 17 and 18 compared with 16), but they never found oxygen. The materials could be geochemical as well. The same reaction used by Germany to make synthetic petrol during WW2 can occur underground, and make hydrocarbons. So overall, while this is certainly interesting, as is often the case it raises more questions than it answers.

Advertisements

Colonizing Mars

Recently, Elon Musk threw a Tesla car at Mars and somewhat carelessly, missed. How can you miss a planet? The answer is, not unsurprisingly, quite easily. Mars might be a planet, and planets might seem large, but they are staggeringly small compared with the solar system. But whatever else this achieved, it did draw attention back to thoughts of humans on Mars, and as an exercise, it is not simple to bring the two together. Stephen Hawking was keen on establishing a colony there, mainly as some sort of reserve for humanity in case we did something stupid with out own planet. Would we do that? Unfortunately, the answer is depressingly quite possibly.

So what is required to get to Mars? First, not missing. NASA has shown that it can do this, so in principle this problem is solved. The second requirement is to arrive at the surface at essentially zero vertical velocity, and NASA has not been quite so successful at that, nevertheless, we can assume that landing will be with a piloted shuttle, so this should be able to be done. So far, so good? Well, not quite, because when you get there you have to have enough “stuff” to ensure you can survive. If it is a scientific exploration, the people will be away for over two years, so at a minimum, they will need groceries for two years, unless they grow their own food. They will need their own oxygen and water unless they can recycle it. They will need some means of getting around or there is no point in going, and they will need some sort of habitat. If they are settlers they will need a lot more because they are not coming back.

The obvious first thing to for settlers to do is to have somewhere to live. We can assume that the ship that brought them will provide a temporary place, although if the ship is to be recycled back to earth and they came down in a shuttle, this is a priority. At the same time they must build facilities to grow their own food and make oxygen. This raises the question, how many people could actually grow food and guarantee to do it well enough not to starve in a totally different environment to here? I am not sure you can train for that, but even if you can, there will still need to be a lot of food taken as well as oxygen. However, let’s assume these settlers are really competent and they are raring to get on with it.

The first requirement would be enough area to do it, so they would need a giant glass house (or houses). That means glass, and metal to hold it, but there is worse. You have to pressurize it, because the Martian atmospheric pressure on average is only about ½% of Earth’s. That means you need a strong pump, but because of the aggressive nature of dust in the atmosphere much of the time, you need some form of filter. The air is about 95.3% carbon dioxide, about 2.7% nitrogen and 1.6% argon. If you want to recover the oxygen to breathe, you want to boost the nitrogen so that what is produced is breathable as air, and that requires a major gas separator. The best way is probably to seriously overpressurise it, so the carbon dioxide comes out as a liquid, and keep the rest. However, there is another problem: you need water, so that equipment will probably have to be made even more complicated so the water in the atmosphere can be recovered. The next problem is that if the glasshouse is to be pressurized, it has to be leak-proof. All the joints have to be sealed with something that will not decay under UV radiation, and worse than that, a deep footer is needed around the glasshouse. That means digging a deep trench, pouring concrete, and sealing the walls. Finally, the whole regolith inside the glasshouse has to be treated to decompose its strong oxidizing nature (but this does produce a small amount of oxygen) otherwise the soil will sterilize anything you plant, then you have to add some actual soil. Many of these operations would be best done mechanically, but they each need their own machine.

You may notice that all of these things costs weight, and that is not what is wanted on a space ship. So the question is, how much can be brought there? There is a second requirement. Every time you use a machine, you need fuel. That has to be electric, which means either batteries, which so far would require huge numbers to keep going all day, or fuel cells, but if fuel cells are selected, what will be the fuel? Note that two fuels are required; one to “burn” and the other to burn it in, as there is no oxygen in the atmosphere worth having. Either way, a serious energy producer is required because not only do you have to power things, but you have to keep your glasshouse warm. The night-time temperatures can drop below minus 100 degrees Centigrade. The most obvious source is nuclear, either fission or fusion, but that requires shielding and even more weight.

The above is just some of the issues. I wrote a novel (Red Gold) that involved Martian settlement. The weight of the two ships was twenty million tonne each, and each had a thermonuclear propulsion system that detached and could be used as power plants and mineral separation units later. The idea was that construction materials would be made there, but even if that is done, a huge amount of stuff has to be taken. Think of the cost of lifting forty million tonne of stuff from Earth into orbit alone. Why two ships? Because everything should be done in duplicate, in case something goes wrong. Why that much stuff? Because you want this not to be some horrible exercise in survival.

At this stage I shall insert a small commercial. Red Gold is a story of such colonization, and of fraud, and it includes a lot more about what it might take to colonize Mars. It is available on Kindle Countdown discounts from 13 – 19 April. (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009U0458Y)

A Ball on Mars

In New Zealand we are approaching what the journalists say is “The Silly Season”, the reason being that what with Christmas and New Year, and with it being in the middle of summer, a lot of journalists take holidays, and the media, with a skeleton staff, have to find almost anything to fill in the spaces that the media makes available. So, in the spirit of getting off to an early start, I noticed an image from Mars that looks as if someone left a cannon ball lying around. (The image is easily found on the web, but details are not, so I am not sure where it was found.) So what is it?

Mars_Ball

Needless to say there were some loopy suggestions from “the fringe”, but while it is easy to scoff, it is not so easy to try to guess what it is. The idea of a cannon ball and nothing else borders on the totally bizarre. So what can we see from the image? The remarkable point about this object is it seems to be lying on the surface, which suggest it did not strike it, as otherwise there would be indentations, or, if it were a meteorite, there would be a crater. There clearly isn’t. Equally, however, it looks smooth, which suggests it has been fused, which means it did not arise there. Some have suggested it is a haematite spherule, but that, to me is not that likely, in part because it is so large (the so-called “blueberries” were quite small) and also because there seems to be only one of it, while what created the “blueberries” created a lot of them. In my opinion, it is probably an iron meteorite, and the reason there is no impact crater is that it landed somewhere else, and rolled to this spot.

So maybe time to get a little more serious, and think about iron meteorites. What can we say about them? The Curiosity rover has also found “Egg rock”, which is an iron meteorite about the size of a golf ball. The Rover found iron, nickel and phosphorus as significant constituents, and the phosphorus is present as iron phosphide. There are two important issues here: how did the iron/nickel ball form separately from everything else, and equally important, how did iron phosphide form? That last question may need explanation, because phosphorus does not normally occur as a phosphide, and phosphides only form under highly reducing conditions. (Reducing conditions are usually in the presence of hydrogen and or an active metal at higher temperatures. The opposite, oxidising conditions, occurs when there is oxygen or water present, but not enough hydrogen or metal to scavenge the oxygen.)

Iron phosphide is known to occur in certain iron meteorites, but such meteorites can always be attributed to having formed at a little more than 1 A.U. from, or closer to the star. Chondrites that formed further out, such as in the asteroid belt, always have their phosphorus in the form of phosphate, which is a very stable, oxidised, phosphorus compound. The point about 1 A.U. (the distance of Earth from the sun) is that was where the temperatures were hot enough to melt iron, and the phosphide would form by the molten iron reacting with phosphate to form the phosphide and iron oxide.

Now for the reason for going on about this. One of the JPL team explained that iron meteorites originated from the cores of asteroids. The premise here is that during initial accretion, the dust assembled into an asteroid-sized object, the object got sufficiently hot and the iron and nickel melted and sunk to the core. Later, there was a massive collision and the asteroid’s core shattered, and the meteorites we see are the fragments from the shattering. (Note, the same people argue planets formed by asteroid sized bodies, and bigger, colliding and everything stick together. Here is having your cake and eating it in action.) The first question is, why did the rock melt? One possibility is radioactive isotopes, so it is possible, nevertheless for the explanation to work the asteroid had to melt hot enough to melt iron, and to hold those temperatures for long enough for the iron to work its way to the centre through the very viscous silicates in a very weak gravitational field. A further problem is that the phosphate would dissolve in the silicates, in which case it would not form iron phosphide because the iron would not get there. Calcium phosphate has a density of about 3, very similar to many of the silicates, so it might be difficult for iron phosphide to form in such an asteroid. Only a very few asteroids, and Vesta is one, have iron cores, and there are some reasons to believe Vesta formed somewhere else and moved.

The reason for my interest is that in my ebook, “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” I argue that the first way accretion started was for the dust in the accretion disk to get hot enough to get sticky, or to form something that could later act like a cement. When the temperatures got up to about 1550 degrees Centigrade, iron melts and in the disk would form globules that would grow to a certain degree. Many of these would also find molten silicates to coat them, so the separation occurred through the temperature generated by the accreting star. Provided these could separate themselves from the gas flow (and there is at least a plausible mechanism) then these would become the raw materials for rocky planets to form. That is why (at least in my opinion) Earth, Venus and Mercury have large iron cores, but Mars does not.

That, of course, has got a little away from the “Martian cannonball” but part of forming a scientific theory is to let the mind wander, to check that a number of other aspects of the problem are consistent with the propositions. In my view, the presence of iron phosphide in an iron meteorite is most unlikely to have come from the core of an asteroid that got smashed up. I still like my theory, but then again, I suppose I am biased.

Asteroids

If you have been to more than the occasional science fiction movie, you will know that a staple is to have the trusty hero being pursued, but escaping by weaving in and out of an asteroid field. Looks like good cinema, they make it exciting, but it is not very realistic. If asteroids were that common, according to computer simulations their mutual gravity would bring them together to form a planet, and very quickly. In most cases, if you were standing on an asteroid, you would be hard pressed to see another one, other than maybe as a point like the other stars. One of the first things about the asteroid belt is it is mainly empty. If we combined all the mass of the asteroids we would get roughly 4% of the mass of the Moon. Why is that? The standard theory of planetary formation cannot really answer that, so they say there were a lot there, but Jupiter’s gravity drove them out, at the same time overlooking the fact their own theory says they should form a planet through their self-gravity if there were that amny of them. If that were true, why did it leave some? It is not as if Jupiter has disappeared. In my “Planetary formation and Biogenesis”, my answer is that while the major rocky planets formed by “stone” dust being cemented together by one other agent, the asteroid belt, being colder, could only manage dust being cemented together with two other agents, and getting all three components in the same place at the same time was more difficult.

There is a further reason why I do not believe Jupiter removed most of the asteroids. The distribution currently has gaps, called the Kirkwood gaps, where there are very few asteroids, and these occur at orbital resonances with Jupiter. Such a resonance is when the target body would orbit at some specific ratio to Jupiter’s orbital period, so frequently the perturbations are the same because in a given frame of reference, they occur in the same place. Thus the first such gap occurs at 2.06 A.U. from the sun, where any asteroid would go around the sun exactly four times while Jupiter went around once. That is called a 4:1 resonance, and the main gaps occur at 3:1, 5:2, 7:3 and 2:1 resonances. Now the fact that Jupiter can clear out these narrow zones but leave all the rest more or less unchanged strongly suggests to me there were never a huge population of asteroids and we are seeing a small residue.

The next odd thing about asteroids is that while there are not very many of them, they change their characteristics as they get further from the star (with some exceptions to be mentioned soon.) The asteroids closest to the sun are basically made of silicates, that is, they are essentially giant rocks. There appear to be small compositional variations as they get further from the star, then there is a significant difference. How can we tell? Well, we can observe their brightness, and in some cases we can correlate what we see with meteorites, which we can analyse. So, further out, they get significantly duller, and fragments that we call carbonaceous chondrites land on Earth. These contain a small amount of water, and organic compounds that include a variety of amino acids, purines and pyrimidines. This has led some to speculate that our life depended on these landing on Earth in large amounts when Earth was very young. In my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis”, I disagree. The reasons are that to get enough, a huge number of such asteroids would have to impact the Earth because they are still basically rock, BUT at the same time, hardly any of the silicate based asteroids would have to arrive, because if they did, the isotopes of certain elements on Earth would have to be different. Such isotope evidence also rules these out as a source of water, as does certain ratios such as carbon to chlorine. What these asteroid fragments do show, however, is that amino acids and other similar building blocks of life are reasonably easily formed. If they can form on a lump of rock in a vacuum, why cannot they form on Earth?

The asteroid belt also has the odd weird asteroid. The first is Ceres, the largest. What is weird about it is that it is half water. The rest are essentially dry or only very slightly wet. How did that happen, and more to the point, why did it not happen more frequently? The second is Vesta, the second largest. Vesta is rocky, although it almost certainly had water at some stage because there is evidence of quartz. It has also differentiated, and while the outer parts have olivine, deeper down we get members of the pyroxene class of rocks, and deeper down still there appears to be a nickel/iron core. Now there is evidence that there may be another one or two similar asteroids, but by and large it is totally different from anything else in the asteroid belt. So how did that get there?

I rather suspect that they started somewhere else and were moved there. What would move them is if they formed and came close to a planet, and instead of colliding with it, they were flung into a highly elliptical orbit, and then would circularise themselves where they ended up. Why would they do that? In the case of Vesta, at some stage it suffered a major collision because there is a crater near the south pole that is 25 km deep, and it is from this we know about the layered nature of the asteroid. Such a collision may have resulted in it remaining in orbit roughly near its present position, and the orbit would be circularised due to the gravity of Jupiter. Under this scenario, Vesta would have formed somewhere near Earth to get the iron core. Ceres, on the other hand, probably formed closer to Jupiter.

In my previous post, I wrote that I believed the planets and other bodies grew by Monarchic growth, but that does not mean there were no other bodies growing in a region. Monarchic growth means the major object grows by accreting things at least a hundred times smaller, but of course significant growth can occur for other objects. The most obvious place to grow would be at a Lagrange point of the biggest object and the sun. That is a position where the planet’s gravitational field and the sun’s cancel, and the body is in stable or metastable orbit there. Once it gets to a certain size, however, it is dislodged, and that is what I think was the source of the Moon, its generating body probably starting at L4, the position at the same distance from the sun as Earth, but sixty degrees in front of it. There are other metastable positions, and these may have also formed around Venus or Mercury, and these would also be unstable due to different rocky planets. The reason I think this is that for Vesta to have an iron core, it had to pick up bodies with a lot of iron, and such bodies would form in the hotter part of the disk while the star was accreting. This is also the reason why Earth has an iron core and Mars has a negligible one. However, as I understand it, the isotopes from rocks on Vesta are not equivalent to those of Earth, so it may well have started life nearer to Venus or Mercury. So far we have no samples to analyse that we know came from either of these two planets, and I am not expecting any such samples anytime soon.

A Giant Planet Around a Dwarf Star

The news here, at least, has made much of the discovery of NGTS-1b, described as a giant planet orbiting a dwarf star. It is supposed to be the biggest planet ever found around such a small star, and it is supposed to be inexplicable how such a big planet could form. One key point that presumably everyone will agree with is, a small star forms because there is less gas and dust in the cloud that will form the star than in the cloud that forms a big star. Accordingly there is less total material to form a planet. Missing from that statement is the fact that in all systems the amount of mass in the planets is trivial compared to the mass of the star. Accordingly, there is nothing at all obscure about an unexpectedly big planet if the planet was just a bit more efficient at taking material that would otherwise go into the star.

So, a quick reality check: the star is supposed to be about 60% the size of the sun, and the planet is about 80% the mass of Jupiter, but has a somewhat larger radius. Planets up to twenty times the size of Jupiter are known around stars that are not more than about three times the size of our sun, so perhaps there is more being made of this “big planet” than is reasonable.

Now, why is it inexplicable how such a large planet could form around a small star, at least in standard theory? The mechanism of formation of planets in the standard theory is that first gas pours in, forms the star, and leaves a residual disk (the planetary accretion disk), in which gas is essentially no longer moving towards the star. That is not true; the star continues to accrete, but several orders or magnitude more slowly. The argument then is that this planetary accretion disk has to contain all the material needed to form the planets, and they have to form fast enough to get as big as they end up before the star ejects all dust and gas, which can take somewhere up to 10 million years (10 My), with a mean of about 3 My. There is some evidence that some disks last at least 30 My. Now the dust collides, sticks (although why or how is always left out in the standard theory) and forms planetesimals, which are bodies of asteroid size. These collide and form bigger bodies, and so on. This is called oligarchic growth. The problem is, as the bodies get larger, the distance between them increases and collision probability falls away, not helped by the fact that the smaller the star, the slower the orbiting bodies move, the less turbulent it will be, so the rate of collisions slows dramatically. For perspective purposes, collisions in the asteroid belt are very rare, and when they occur, they usually lead to the bodies getting smaller, not bigger. There are a modest number of such families of detritus asteroids.

The further out the lower the concentration of matter, simply because there is a lot more space. A Jupiter-sized body has to grow fast because it has to get big enough for its gravity to hold hydrogen, and then actually hold it, before the disk gases disappear. Even accreting gas is not as simple as it might sound, because as the gas falls down the planetary gravitational field, it gets hot, and that leads to some gas boiling off back to space. To get going quickly, it needs more material, and hence a Jupiter type body is argued (correctly, in my opinion) to form above the snow line of water ice. (For the purposes of discussion, I shall call material higher up the gravitational potential “above”, in which case “below” is closer to the star.) It is also held that the snow line is not particularly dependent on stellar mass, in which case various planetary systems should scale similarly. With less material around the red dwarf, and as much space to put it in, everything will go a lot slower and the gas will be eliminated before a planet is big enough to handle it. Accordingly, it seems that according to standard theory, this planet should not form, let alone be 0.036 A.U. from the star.

The distance from the star is simply explained in any theory: it started somewhere else and moved there. The temperature at that distance is about 520 degrees C, and with solar wind it would be impossible for a small core to accrete that much gas. (The planet has a density of less than 1, so like Saturn it would float if put in a big enough tub of water.) How would it move? The simplest way would be if we imagined a Jupiter and a Saturn formed close enough together, when they could play gravitational billiards, whereby one moves close to the star and the other is ejected from the system. There are other plausible ways.

That leaves the question of how the planet forms in the first place. To get so big, it has to form fast, and there is evidence to support such rapid growth. The planet LkCa 15b is around a star that is slightly smaller than the sun, it is three times further out than Jupiter, and it is five times bigger than Jupiter. I believe this makes our sun special – the accretion disk must have been ejected maybe as quickly as 1 My. Simulations indicate that oligarchic growth should not have led to any such oligarchic growth that far out. My explanation (given in my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis”) is that the growth was actually monarchic. This is a mechanism once postulated by Weidenschilling, in 2004 (Weidenschilling, S., 2004. Formation of the cores of the outer planets. Space Science Rev. 116: 53-56.) In this mechanism, provided other bodies do not grow at a sufficient rate to modify significantly the feed density, a single body will grow proportionately to its cross-sectional area by taking all dust that is in its feed zone, which is augmented by gravitation. The second key way to get a bigger planet is to have the planetary accretion disk last longer. The third is, in my theory, the initial accretion is chemical, and the Jupiter core forms like a snowball, by water ice compression fusing. Further, I argue it will start even while the star is accreting. That only occurs tolerably close to the melting point, so it is temperature dependent. The temperatures are reached very much closer to the star for a dwarf. Finally, the planet forming around a dwarf has one final growth advantage: because the star has a lower gravity, the gas will be drifting towards the star more slowly, so the growing planet, while having a less dense feed, also receives a higher fraction of the feed.

So, in my opinion, apart from the fact the planet is so lose to the star, so far there is nothing surprising about it at all, and the mechanisms for getting it close to the star are there, and there are plenty of other “star-burning” planets that have been found.

Why has the monarchic growth concept not taken hold? In my opinion, this is a question of fashion. The oligarchic growth mechanism has several advantages for the preparation of scientific papers. You can postulate all sorts of initial conditions and run computer simulations, then report those that make any sense as well as those that don’t (so others don’t waste time.) Monarchic growth leaves no real room for scientific papers.

The Face of Mars

Image

In 1976, the Viking 1 mission began taking photographs of the surface of Mars, in part to find landing sites for future missions, and also to get a better idea of what Mars was like, to determine the ages of various parts of Mars (done by counting craters, which assumes that once the great bombardment was over, the impacts were more or less regular over time if we think in terms of geological timing.) On the Cydonia Mensae, an image came back that, when refined, looks surprisingly like a face carved into a large rock. Two points are worth mentioning. The first is, if it were such a head, the angle of the light only allows you to see the right side of the head; the rest is in deep shadow. The second is all we received of this object was 64 pixels. The “face” is clearly a butte standing up from the surface (and there are lot of these in the region) and it is about 2.5 km long, about 1.5 km wide, and something like up to 800 m above the average flat ground at its highest point. As you might imagine, with only 64 pixels, the detail is not great, but there is a crater where the right eye should be, a rise that makes the nose, and some sort of “crack” or depression that hints at a mouth, but most of the “mouth” would be in the shade, and hence would be invisible. The image was also liberally splattered with black spots; these were “failed pixels” i.e. a transmission problem. What you see below is that primary image.

640x472 pixels-FC

So, what was it? The most obvious answer was a rock that accidentally looked like a face. To the objection, what is the probability that you could end up with that, the answer is, not as bad as you might think. There are a lot of mesas and rock formations on Mars, so sooner or later one of them might look like something else. There are a number of hills etc on Earth where you can see a head, or a frog, or something if you want to. If you think about it, an oval mesa is not that improbable, and there are a lot of them. There are a very large number of impact craters on Mars, so the chances of one being roughly where an eye would be is quite high (because there is quite a bit of flexibility here) and there are really only two features – the eye and the “mouth”. The rise for the nose only requires the centre to be the highest part, and that is not improbable. As it happens, when you see the whole thing, the left side of the head has sort of collapsed, and it is a fracture offshoot from that collapse that gives the mouth.

However, the image caught the imagination of many, and some got a little carried away. Richard Hoagland wrote a book The Monuments of Mars: A City on the Edge of Forever. If nothing else, this was a really good selling book, at one stage apparently selling up ot 2000 copies a month. Yep, the likes of me are at least envious of the sales. So, what did this say? Basically, Hoagland saw several “pyramids” near the Face, and a jumble of rocks that he interpreted as a walled city. Mars had an ancient civilisation! Left unsaid was why, if there were such “Martians” did they waste effort building pyramids and carving this Face while their planet was dying? For me, another question is why does something this fanciful become a best seller, while the truth languishes?

So what caused this? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. It is reasonably obviously caused by erosion, but what the eroding agent was remains unknown. If you believe Mars once had an ocean, the Cydonian region is roughly where one of the proposed shorelines was. It could also be caused by glaciation, or even wind erosion, aided by moisture in the rock. The freezing/thawing of water generates very powerful forces. What we need is a geologist to visit the site to answer the question, although there would be far more important things to do on Mars than worry about that rock.

Suppose it was carved by a civilization? I included that possiblity in my novel Red Gold. In this, one character tried pulling the leg of another by announcing that it was “obviously carved” by aliens with the purpose of encouraging humans to go into space. “It is worth it,” the aliens would be saying. So why is it so rough? Because the aliens were plagued by accountants, who decided that the effort to do it properly was not worth the benefit; if humans cannot take the hint from the roughly hewn rock, so be it.

It also figures in another of my novels: A Face on Cydonia. Again, it is intended as a joke in the book, but on whom? Why did I do that? Well, I started writing when I heard that Global Surveyor was going to settle this issue, so I thought I should try to have something ready for an agent. However, Global Surveyor, which took very narrow strip images, and could have taken two years to cover this area, took only a few weeks. Out of luck again! Fortunately, the story was never really about the rock, but rather the effect it had on people.

A quick commercial: if anyone is interested, the ebook is at 99 cents on Amazon (or 99p) for the first week of September. The book is the first of a trilogy, but more about people being taken to levels higher than their abilities, and also about what causes some to descend to evil. It also has just a toiuch of science; while you can ignore this and just consider it a powerful explosive, it has the first mention of a chemical tetranitrotetrahedrane. That would be a really powerful explosive, if it could be made, but the more interesting point is why is that there?

The Rivers of Mars: How and Why?

My first self-published ebook was about how to form a theory. The origin of this has an interesting history: Elsevier asked me to write a book, and while I know what they thought they were going to get, I sent back a proposal that I thought they could never accept, largely to get them off my back. They accepted it, at that stage, so I had to write. The problem for me was, it took somewhat longer than I expected; the problem for them was the time taken, the length, and then, horrors, they found out I was not an academic with lots of students forced to buy the book. The book was orphaned, but I was so far on I thought I might as well self publish it. The advocated methodology is that of Aristotle, and oddly enough, most of his scientific bloopers arose because he ignored his own instructions! So, let me show what I made of it on one of my projects: how did Mars ever have flowing rivers? Why I chose that is a story best left for a later post.

The first step is to state clearly what you know. In this case, Mars has some quite long what seem like riverbeds, and they start sometimes from the coldest parts of Mars. The longest goes from highlands 60 degrees south and stops somewhere near the equator, and these can only reasonably be explained by fluid flow. Almost certainly water is the only fluid there in sufficient volume, so it had to be at least part of the flow. However, water freezes at 0 degrees Centigrade, the average temperature on Mars now is about minus 60 degrees C, and when the rivers were flowing the sun had only about 2/3 its current heat output.

The next step is to ask questions. To start, how did water flow, starting from high altitude high latitude sites, where the temperatures would be well below that of the rest of the planet? Could we dissolve something in the water to lower the freezing point? Dissolving salts in the water depresses the freezing point, but even the aggressive calcium chloride will not buy you more than forty degrees, so that is not adequate by itself. There are worse problems with this explanation: where did these salts come from, and how could salts get into snow on the southern highlands?

The standard explanation is that there must have been a greenhouse effect, and many have argued for a very significant carbon dioxide atmosphere. There are three problems with this explanation. The first is, it won’t work. Anything less than ten atmospheres pressure is inadequate, and at three atmospheres, the carbon dioxide liquefies. You cannot get sufficient pressure. The second is, the winters on Mars are very long, and carbon dioxide would snow out on the poles, thus reducing the pressure, and because of the albedo of the snow, not all of it would revolatalize, so as the years progressed, the planet would quickly become what it is like now. The third problem is, if there were that much carbon dioxide, where did it go? From isotope fractionation, it appears that about half of the original material that stayed in the atmosphere has been lost to space. Some more could well be frozen out on the poles. However, if there were enough to sustain liquid water for extended periods of time, there should be a lot of carbonates, and there are not. Now it is true we do not know how much could be buried, so maybe that argument is a bit on the weak side. On the other hand, there is plenty of other evidence that the atmosphere of Mars was always thin, although not as thin as now, as there had to be enough to keep water liquid. A number of estimates put it in the 100 millibar range. Further, if it lasted for periods of a few hundred thousand years it could not have been carbon dioxide, at least not initially as otherwise most would have snowed out. Of course it could have been continuously replenished by volcanic action, but if so, there must be very large deposits of carbon dioxide at the poles and that does not appear to be the case. So by asking such simple questions, we have made progress.

The next question is, how did the gases and water get to Mars? This is a rather convoluted question, but the simple answer is, the river flows lasted for only a few hundred thousand years and they started about 1.5 billion years after Mars formed. They also corresponded to significant periods of volcanic eruptions, so the most likely answer for the gases is they came from volcanic eruptions. Most of the water would have too, however it is possible that there were ice deposits near the surface following accretion. The next question is, how did the gases get below the surface of Mars to be erupted?

If we think about them being adsorbed during accretion, then, with the exception of water and ammonia, because the heats of adsorption are very similar for various gases, they would be adsorbed approximately proportional to their concentrations in the disk gases. That would mean, predominantly hydrogen and helium, although these would have been subsequently lost to space. However, neon would also be a very common gas, and to a lesser degree argon, but both neon and argon (apart from argon 40, which is a decay product of potassium 40) are very rare on Mars, so that was not the mechanism.

A commonly quoted mechanism is the volatiles arrived on the rocky planets through comets. That is not valid, at least for Earth, the reason being that the deuterium levels on comets are too high. Another suggestion is they arrived on carbonaceous chondrites. That too does not ring true, first because there would have had to be a huge number more of them, but not silicaceous asteroids, and second, the isotopes of some other elements rule that out. As far as Mars goes, there is the additional point that since it had no plate tectonics, and it had a rocky surface approximately three million years after formation, there is no mechanism to get the gases below the surface.

The only way they could get there is to be accreted as solids. Water would bind chemically to silicates; carbon would probably be accreted as carbides, or as carbon; nitrogen would be accreted as nitrides. The gases are then formed by the reaction of water with the carbides or nitrides, so the amount of gas available depends on how many of these solids were formed, and how much water was accreted. The lower levels of these gases on Mars is due to the fact that the material in the Mars feeding zone never got as hot as around Earth during stellar accretion. The higher temperature in the Venusian accretion zone is why it also has about three times the nitrogen as Earth: nitrides were easier to form at higher temperatures. Water binding to silicates happened after the disk cooled, but before the dust accreted to planets, and Mars has less water because the better aluminosilicates never phase separated because the temperatures earlier were never hot enough. Venus got less water because the disk never got as cool as around Earth and the silicates could not absorb so much.

When water reacts with nitrides and carbides it makes ammonia and methane, and these are most stable under high pressure, which is easily obtained in the interior of planets. If so, this hypothesis predicts that the initial atmosphere would comprise ammonia and methane. This is usually considered to be wrong because ammonia in the atmosphere is quickly decomposed by UV radiation, however, the ammonia will not stay in the atmosphere. Ammonia is rapidly absorbed by water, and even snow, and it will liquefy ice even at minus 80 degrees C. That gets it out of the atmosphere quickly and now there is a simple mechanism why water would flow, and also why it would later stop flowing near the equator and form ice deposits: as it got warmer, the ammonia would evaporate off. The atmosphere would start as methane, but would gradually be oxidised to carbon dioxide, which is why the atmosphere had such a short life. The carbon dioxide would react with ammonia, and eventually the ammonium carbonate would be converted to urea and the water would stop flowing. Thus in this theory under the soil of Mars, provided it has not reacted further, there is just the fertilizer settlers would need.