July 01, 1997

Article at Black+White Magazine

The Red Planet

The eternally fascinating Mars

Mars has always been a spooky place. And it’s just got spookier.

By Wilson da Silva

FOX MULDER, no doubt, knew it all along. He believes. But the Dana Sculley in me has some doubts – are we really talking here about life on Mars? Life on that God-forsaken dirtball with air too thin to breathe and so cold it makes the South Pole look like St Tropez? 

Surely those earnest looking guys at the space agency NASA wouldn’t lie. The Prez, one Bill Clinton, wouldn’t pull a stunt like that just to curry votes, right? Ok, so he might. But you can’t deny the evidence the NASA scientists presented to an open-mouthed world earlier this year.

The rock

At the centre of it all is a potato-size chunk of dark rock known only as ALH84001. It is a meteorite, a chunk of Mars that fell from the sky and landed in Antarctica 13,000 years ago. The 1.9 kilo Martian stone gets its name from the place it was found – the Allan Hills region of the frozen continent. It was actually picked up in 1984, and is one of 12 meteorites found around the world that have been positively identified as being pieces of Mars.

The scientists know it came from Mars because when a rock is formed, it takes on a signature of its home atmosphere; the “gas particle” signature of the 12 rocks exactly matches the atmosphere of the Mars as collected by the Viking mission, the duo of robot explorers that the Americans landed on Mars in 1976. So we know the rocks came from Mars.

Image above: ALH84001 is a fragment of a Martian meteorite found in the Allan Hills of Antarctica in 1984, thought to be 4.1 billion years old. Image below: View of the purported 'fossil life' found inside ALH84001.

Ok, so how did a chunk of Mars get to Antarctica? The scientists know that it was formed about 3.6 billion years ago. About 15 million years ago, a really big meteor came crashing down on Mars, causing a huge explosion that threw bits of the surface into space. The rock was one of those bits, and it floated around in space until 13,000 years ago, when it got nabbed by the Earth’s gravity and came to a smashing halt on the Antarctic ice sheet.

It was only a couple of years ago that NASA scientists got around to studying the rock closely. They found tiny globules of carbon scattered in cracks that run through the rock. So, they put the globules under high-powered microscopes and ran a bunch of laser chemical analysis tests. 

That’s when their socks blew off. The scientists found markings resembling the outlines of tiny cells. They also found minute iron-filled crystals similar to those produced by some types of bacteria on Earth; and some unusual organic molecules never before seen in a Martian meteorite.

To boot, when they cooked bits of the rock and tested the gases given off, they found enriched carbon-12 – exactly the kind of carbon that every known form of life on Earth leaves behind. Taken together, the scientists could not deny what they were seeing: what appeared to be the fossils of tiny bacteria. They resemble nothing on Earth, and there are more of them deeper inside the rock – so they are unlikely to be Earth bacteria that contaminated the rock after it landed.

“There could be very complicated inorganic explanations for the presence of these mineral grains,” Kathie Thomas-Keprta, a member of the scientific team, told the press conference. “But the simplest explanation is that these are products from micro-organisms on Mars.”

The weirdest thing is this: at the time these “microfossils” formed, some 3.6 billion years ago – at exactly the same time – bacteria like it were only just arising on Earth. At that time, Mars and Earth were very much alike, both very wet and very volcanically active. These “microfossils”, if they are for real, could be our sisters in the great cosmic humidicrib of the inner solar system. 

The planet

Mars, named after the god of war, has held a fascination for much of human history. The bright red orb, as it is seen from the ground, has inspired literary works from Jonathan Swift, Umberto Eco, Jorge Luis Borges, Kurt Vonnegut and Bertrand Russell, as well as numerous science fiction writers like H.G. Wells, he of War of the Worlds fame. 

In his 1898 novel, Herbert George created for us a frightening vision of slimy warlike creatures that has remained embedded in popular culture since – nasty invading hordes bent on planetary domination. You can find an homage to his vision in this year’s cinematic blockbuster Independence Day, whose aliens look very much like the original Martians described in the book. 

Mars is not a pleasant place. That’s why in Total Recall, Arnold Schwarznegger, on the floor and unconscious after a melee in the Martian colonies, gets the bejesus kicked out of him by his distressed and betraying lover, who hollers, “And one more thing: I hate this fucking planet!” 

She had good reason. Mars is a lot like Earth ... but then not like Earth in a lot of infuriating ways. Although it has a rusty red surface reminiscent of Australia’s Dead Heart, icecaps at the poles, and an atmosphere with sunrise and sunset – just like a self-respecting planet ought to – the air is far too thin to breathe: it’s only got two per cent of our atmosphere. 

A day on Mars is 24 hours and 37 minutes – not too different from home – but a year is 687 days. Tilted on its axis at the same angle as Earth, it has seasons too. But don’t expect Club Med Mars – we’re talking summers of -23˚C and winters of -37˚C. Even for Hobart, that’s cold.

There isn’t a decent beach anywhere on the planet – the place is dry. There are two paltry icecaps at the poles which contain frozen water, and there’s likely to be a whole lot more as permafrost deep below the ground. But there once was water, and plenty of it, enough to put the whole planet under 10 metres of it. A lot of that evaporated into space as the planet cooled – it hasn’t enough gravity to hold it all in. But estimates are that enough trickled underground for a layer of water half a kilometre thick to still be sloshing around deep below. 

Nasty duststorms rise up to blanket most of the planet every now and then. The last volcanic eruption was probably around 250 million years ago. So, the place is above all quiet – if life ever partied here, the beer ran out a long time ago and anyone who crashed over is long gone.

It is possible that whatever form of life developed in the first billion or so years, may have retreated underground where theoretically, hot springs could provide enough water and warmth to keep the biological cycle ticking over. This is real science, and was being talked about even before the NASA announcement.

“Tantalising and majestic, Mars is the world next door, the nearest planet on which an astronaut or cosmonaut could safely land,” says astronomer and author Carl Sagan in his recent book, A Pale Blue Dot. “In all the solar system, it is the planet most like Earth.” 

Despite the nasty climate, it is the planet where we could most easily imagine life to exist. But the two Viking spacecraft never did find conclusive signs, although some of the results from its battery of soil samples still puzzle scientists.

But that was 1976, and scientists now know that the chemical reactions driving biological activity are much more diverse than anyone suspected. Lifeforms have now been found on Earth living under glaciers or on the edge of volcanoes on the seafloor; scientists have found bizarre bacteria that require no sunlight and can live using only hydrogen, methane, sulphur or iron. This is exactly the kind of biology that would have been missed by the Viking craft. 

The weird stuff

There’s just no way to tackle the issue of Mars without getting into Twilight Zone territory. When the first U.S. space probes reached the planet in 1964, Mars was engulfed in a global sandstorm that hid the surface from the robot’s prying lenses.

The Russians sent six robotic missions between 1960 and 1973, and every one of them failed; the last robot explorer went silent only seconds after touching down. In August 1993, a year after blast off, NASA’s $700 million probe Mars Observer suddenly went silent as it neared the planet. Engineers still do not know if the probe entered orbit as planned, or missed its target completely and went spinning wildly into space.

A lot of people around reckon more is known about Mars than the government lets on. Remember the ‘Face on Mars’ pictures? The pyramids? Ever since frame 37H72 of the Viking orbiter’s pictures, taken above the Cydonia region of the planet in 1976, was released by NASA, Mars has been a constant source of speculation. There are a wealth of books and TV shows that would make Eric von Daniken proud (he of Chariots of the Gods fame). 

None is more high-profile, nor more detailed, than the works of one-time U.S. researcher Richard Hoagland. Billed as a consultant to NASA, the author of The Monuments on Mars presents a compelling case for more research into the strange rock formations in the Cydonia region. 

Frame 37H72 of the images taken by NASA's Viking 1 Orbiter over the Cydonia region of Mars on 25 July 1976 while searching for a landing site for the Viking 2 Lander; the speckles are created by missing data caused by transmission errors from Mars to Earth.

Working with a loose association of rogue Egyptologists, part-time topologists, freelance software engineers and digital imaging specialists, he has amassed a body of work that, at its best, raises some interesting enigmas. There is, after all, 95 per cent symmetry in the image of The Face – that’s pretty high for an “accident of nature” or a trick of light. 

As he points out, most rock structures on Earth that have some resemblance to faces or other body parts only appear to do so from one angle, usually at profile. On the other hand, The Face also looks that way from a lot of angles (according to computer-generated extrapolations of the original images). It is also “looking” straight up at you, as if it was built so it could be recognised from orbit. Thought to have been formed about 500,000 years ago, it appears a bit more ape-like than human – kind of like how our ancestors might have looked at around the same time. 

And it is a little peculiar that the mountains that look so like pyramids are nearby, in the same plain, along with a whole bunch of outcroppings that suggest ruins or some sort of structure. Hoagland makes some interesting observations about the relationship between the angles and positioning of the “pyramids” and their relationship to The Face, observations that make you wonder.

But then Hoagland, like a lot of the people writing on the topic, spins off into La-La Land. He makes links between The Face and the Sphinx in Egypt, between Mayan temples and the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, between volcanoes on Mars and Stonehenge-like mounds in Avebury, Great Britain, and even brings in Atlantis in for good measure. The links are largely mathematical, relying on things like the cosine of the latitude where Egyptian Sphinx is located being equivalent to the tangent of the latitude of The Face on Mars – when divided by pi. That sort of thing.

Well, big deal. Give me 10 minutes with a calculator and I can show an uncanny mathematical link between the dimensions of the Martian pyramids and the size of my underpants. That doesn’t make me an extraterrestrial, despite what my friends might tell you. Another half-hour and I could prove an intrinsic mathematical relationship between the angles of the Sydney Opera House, Stonehenge and the Martian pyramids. That doesn’t mean Jörn Utzon is from Mars. 

Like the scene in Independence Day, the U.S. government may well be lying to us about Area 51 and the Roswell incident – you know, the supposed crash of an alien spacecraft in New Mexico in the 1950s from which the U.S. military recovered alien bodies. There may well be evidence of extraterrestrial contact being kept from us.

Maybe that’s why Mulder and Sculley, they of The X-Files, have been so popular – we just know something is afoot; we know they’re keeping something from us. A lot of us would like to know more, some of us hunger for some sort of cosmic revelation that explains it all, others just believe anyway. Either way, it would be nice to know for sure.

Whether life has ever existed on Mars, or continues to exist, will only be answered by returning samples of Martian rocks back on Earth, or by sending humans there. NASA is launching two small missions to Mars in November and December this year, and the Russians sending one in December. But they were not designed to look for life; mostly, to map and study the surface.

A sample return mission is not schedule for blast off until 2005. This may change: President Clinton has called an international summit for November to discuss the Mars discoveries, and some people in NASA are even talking up the idea of an international manned mission to Mars early next century. 

Either way, Mars remains a strange place. It continues to haunt us – the more we know about it, the more mysterious it seems to get. 

Everything connected with Mars is just that little bit weird too. Remember those 12 rocks that have been found to be from Mars? One of them, a 40-kilo boulder known as Nakhla, fell in Egypt in 1911. It killed a dog on re-entry. Now that’s weird.