The Sun, ever a bastion of journalistic credibility, ran a big story the other day making a pretty big claim:
NASA scientists last night unveiled compelling evidence of life on Mars.
A special mission to the Red Planet has revealed the likely presence of a form of pond scum – the building blocks of life as we know it.
Of course, the first thing to do when you see a sensational story in the Sun is to disbelieve it, and the second is to look for sources. Lots of people have re-posted this article as fact, or written other articles proclaiming OMG LIFE ON MARS !!!11!, but the only source they can refer to is the Sun.
Fortunately, my friend Mr. Google was able to provide a more reasoned account of the story:
It seems that there’s lots of gypsum and similar types of rock on Mars. Researchers have recently discovered that gypsum on Earth holds lots of microscopic fossils of ocean life:
The scientists said they are impressed by the unexpected discovery of 6-million-year-old fossils in rocks from a time when the Mediterranean Sea was known to have dried up completely.
During a NASA phone briefing Wednesday, J. William Schopf, director of the Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life at UCLA, said the fossil life forms include organisms much like those in the oceans of today – phytoplankton, diatoms, and cyanobacteria, better known in a non-ocean environment as “pond scum.”
So the findings on Earth give scientists a clue where to look for evidence of life on Mars. The Sun reporters (one of whom is listed as “Sun Spaceman”) seem to be a little confused about what was reported. The real story is how this affects future plans for Martian exploration:
It’s much more interesting to look at pictures of rocks when they’re ROCKS ON MARS:
Meanwhile, here’s an actual discovery that doesn’t sound as glamorous, but is pretty significant:
“For a long time the thinking was that you couldn’t find a cup’s worth of water in the entire asteroid belt,” said Don Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Today we know you not only could quench your thirst, but you just might be able to fill up every pool on Earth – and then some.”
The general spin on this is that it might explain where the Earth’s water came from. More importantly, though, the need for water is one of the major obstacles to humanity getting off the Earth and into the rest of the system. On the other hand, I’ve seen what mining sites look like here. We’d better clean up our act a whole lot before we make our way to the asteroid belt.
This is also pretty interesting:
Do you know about the Oort cloud? It’s pretty awesome.