Martian manganese continues to fascinate. Its mere existence on Mars brings up a host of questions about environmental conditions in the past and present, and also what it might signify in ancient rocks on Earth. It would be great to get this stuff into one of our Perseverance tubes!
So what’s so great about manganese? Manganese minerals have long been used as an indicator of redox conditions—that is, they tell us about a type of powerful chemical reaction that often involves oxygen. When we see manganese minerals on Earth, they tell us that not only was there liquid water, but also there must have been strong oxidants present—or microbes doing related chemistry. When we see manganese minerals on Mars, we may then ask whether they formed by some unusual oxidizing chemistry unique to the martian environment, or whether like on Earth, they may be pointing to the past presence of oxygen or life.
With this first sample tube deposited on the martian surface, we are one step closer to doing the very first sample return mission from Mars. These samples will be returned to Earth in 2033 for analysis (and reanalysis) in our terrestrial laboratories, which will answer many fundamental questions…and likely bring up a host of new questions as well!
Dust devils form on Mars for much the same reasons that they form on Earth: Turbulence in the atmosphere. Today, the surface of Mars is dominated by these wind-related processes. We can see in real time how wind moves materials across the planet and how these materials can gently scour rocks and accumulate, thereby changing the landscape.
In his own words, James Harper, a health physics field coordinator at Los Alamos National Laboratory, gives a fascinating account of why he accompanied a team of the Laboratory’s Mars scientists this summer to a 31-million-year-old crater, 600 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Around the Lab, Harper provides radiation protection field support to workers carrying out national security missions. This unexpected assignment definitely broadened his horizons.
James Harper: “Wow! The day I never expected has finally arrived. As I cross the threshold of the Boeing 737, I reflect. Several months have slowly passed until this point and now in a few short days I’ll be exploring the secluded Arctic, in total isolation, thousands of miles from civilization — in the name of…”
Check the the Roving With Perseverance website for tour dates. Upcoming and current locations include (in addition to NMMNHS) the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, the Edelman Planetarium in Glassboro, N.J., the Museum of Science in Boston.
It’s easy for people to look at images from the red planet and see all sorts of things that seem to indicate alien life—even though the truth is much less exciting. The human face is a mesa, the crab is just a rock, and the cannonball is a pebble.
Most scientists aren’t surprised when some people come up with a sci-fi explanation for an image from another planet. After all, humans evolved to find recognizable patterns amid chaos. There’s even a word for it: pareidolia. But what we don’t expect is for fellow scientists—those who have been trained in the scientific method—to make those claims. When they do, it hurts science as a whole.
If life exists on Mars, it still hasn’t showed itself—but recent evidence from the Red Planet increasingly supports the possibility. Life could have developed there. Most of the conditions are right, and nothing found so far rules out the possibility, either in the distant past or today.
If something is or was alive on the Red Planet, it’s probably tiny. Because microbes make up the vast majority of life on Earth and live in its most inhospitable environments, they are the most likely thing to find somewhere else. It’s not so easy figuring out what “alive” means on another planet—let alone discovering a living microbe. Scientists are still puzzled by life on Earth— struggling to understand how life started, what it requires to survive, what it looked like 4 four billion years ago, and how to recognize traces of ancient life today.