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You say: "(though things would have to get pretty damn dire for ESA to close down a functioning spacecraft round Mars just because its primary mission)."
I think a word got lost there at the end, in the travel-weariness...

Oliver Morton

"... had ended.)" Thanks Marrije. I've fixed the text accordingly. How are you enjoying Jonathan Strange (which seems to have missed out on the Booker prize shortlist)?


Ooh, I'm enjoying it very much, thank you, Oliver. I love Ms Clarke's sense of humour and her playful language. And the footnotes, of course. I have no doubt that she will do very well, with or without the Booker.

Alas, now is not a good time for me to be reading a novel this huge: I'm very busy and scatterbrained, and can't give it the attention it deserves. A few days with nothing to do AND NO KIDS would be nice. Sigh.

Rick Sterling

It should be noted that at the Ischia Conference V. Formisano presented a slide which discussed his Formaldehyde & HF discoveries. His Nature paper should be fascinating reading!

Joj Reuben

Thanks to Oliver et al for the excellent reports from Ischia.

On the story from Vittorio (Formisano) about why Mars Express (and PFS) did not look for ammonia from Beagle 2, you mention that its not the whole story. Since Mars Express captured into a 20 day long orbit (with a very high apocenter - about 400,000 km) it was moving away from the planet very fast indeed. It was only 5 hours after capture that the spacecraft reorientated towards Earth and send back telemetry data. It would have taken many hours presumably to program a PFS observation, and the reorientation necessary to perform it, all assuming it passed over the landing site. By then it was presumably a very long way from the planet on its ascent to the plane-turn manoeuvre and well beyond the range of PFS to give useful data. After travelling 400M km across the Solar System ESA might understandably be reluctant to risk the entire orbiter mission for a negligible chance of taking an observation that would probably prove nothing. If the capture had not gone off perfectly or the capture pericenter was too low, its conceivable that only a fine-trim manoeuvre after capture would avoid re-entry or impact on Mars at the next pericenter, and anything that risked making this impossible would be avoided at all cost (including turning on the instruments).

As for MARSIS, after waiting for 3 months with almost no science data from the optical instruments (pericenter is on the night side), they are finally coming into optimum observation season ( for the IR spectrometer and HRSC camera). The original deployment was intended for April 2004, after the longest eclipses were over. This was presumably carefully though out such that the MARSIS radar commissioning then took place during the subsequent 2 month nighttime pericenter phase, during which the optical instruments could not be used anyhow. That presents a strong case for waiting until next March, after the 2005 eclipse season is declining and the same conditions apply. With the mission ticking along apparently very smoothly and about to generate significant quantities of infra-red and optical imagery, the hazardous deployment of the radar antennae must seem a very unattractive risk compared to the apparently very small chance of a spontaneous and catastrophic mission loss due to unforeseen events. It might be hard for ESA to justify why it delayed the radar deployment for over 2 years, but probably much harder to explain why it lost Mars Express during a known high-risk deployment before its nominal mission was even 1/2 way through?


Alex R. Blackwell

Welcome back from Ischia, Oliver. Now that's what I call instant reaction journalism ;-)

I understand why Professor Formisano is being more than a little circumspect on the PFS data since he has, apparently, two papers under review, one with Science and one with Nature. Both of these journals have very strict embargo policies and neither would hesitate to reject a paper if the author(s) revealed details while the embargo is in place, especially while the paper is still under review. That referees are having problems with the at least one of the papers is no surprise to me given the nature of the claims and their implications. This in not really unusual and has happened before. Indeed, from what I understand, the Krasnopolsky et al. paper on Martian methane was initially rejected by Science because of, among other things, the authors' rather staunch position that the methane signature was due to biogenic activity. As you recall, the paper was accepted and is currently in press with another journal, Icarus, though I'm sure a large segment of the science community will still have problems with it. Mike Mumma apparently does.

At any rate, in my opinion this entire PFS-methane-formaldehyde-HF-ammonia-and-whatever-else-the-instrument-may-have-detected matter has, quite frankly, been handled in a slightly inept way by the PFS team and ESA. Surely, the PFS team knew their initial views present in public or semi-public forums would become widespread knowledge. While I sympathize with the need to present the data to the science community for feedback prior to publication, which I think is crucial to the whole process, I am not sympathetic with the PFS team for some of the negative publicity they've gotten due to their own making (e.g., Formisano's comments to you that his Ischia abstract, for which he is responsible, was "all wrong" and "a mess."). This, and faulty reporting and/or leaking to Whitehouse at the BBC on the ammonia story, has only fanned the flames for people like Hoagland and his cohorts.

Alex R. Blackwell

From the September 24, 2004 issue of the journal Science:

Solar Wind-Induced Atmospheric Erosion at Mars: First Results from ASPERA-3 on Mars Express
R. Lundin, et al.
Science 305, 1933-1936, (2004)


Alex R. Blackwell

From the December 2004 issue of Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere:

Growth of Methanogens on a Mars Soil Simulant
Timothy A. Kral, Curtis R. Bekkum, Christopher P. McKay
Origins Life Evol. B. 34, 615-626, (2004)
Abstract http://ipsapp009.kluweronline.com/IPS/content/ext/x/J/5066/I/38/A/2/abstract.htm


Those radar ant deployment models - are they differing because the models themselves are different, or because nobody's quite sure which figures to plug into the back end? Is there much chance that the models will converge soon?


Alex R. Blackwell

For those with access to Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere, more information on the research being conducted by Kral et al. can be found here:


and here


See also the Kral et al. abstract from the 64th Annual Meteoritical Society Meeting in 2001:


Alex R. Blackwell

Oops. The first line of my previous post should read: "For those without access..."

Alex R. Blackwell

From the "News of the Week" section of the October 1, 2004 issue of Science:

Heavy Breathing on Mars?
Richard A. Kerr
Science 306, 29, (2004).

David Whitehouse

Just a comment regarding Joj Reburn's remarks. It was a leak but I'm saying no more (for now).

Alex R. Blackwell

Published online today in Science Express Reports:

Detection of Methane in the Atmosphere of Mars
Vittorio Formisano, Sushil Atreya, Thérèse Encrenaz, Nikolai Ignatiev, and Marco Giuranna
Published online October 28 2004; 10.1126/science.1101732 (Science Express Reports)

Supporting Online Material

Alex R. Blackwell

Researchers detect methane on Mars
University of Michigan News Service
Ann Arbor, Michigan
October 28, 2004


Alex R. Blackwell

Mars' methane possibly signals life
But many other explanations for presence of the gas exist
By ALEXANDRA WITZE / The Dallas Morning News
10:16 PM CST on Thursday, November 11, 2004


(Note: free registration required)

Alex R. Blackwell

Mars Methane Boosts Chances for Life
By Robert Naeye
Sky and Telescope News
November 11, 2004

Alex R. Blackwell

Martian Methane Resuscitates Hope for Life on the Red Planet
Scientific American - Science News
November 16, 2004

Alex R. Blackwell

Mars: The Case for Methane Expands, but Theories about Abundance and Source Diverge
By A.J.S. Rayl
The Planetary Society
November 19, 2004

Bruce Moomaw

The May 14 issue of "Science" features an article by Foustoukos and Seyfried (of which Google, bless its avaricious little heart, has cached a free copy at ), describing a really efficient mechanism by which methane (and other hydrocarbons) can be generated in large amounts by the nonbiological Fischer-Tropsch process "both in hydrothermal vents in ultramafic rocks, and in aging ocean-floor deposits undergoing serpentinization" -- thanks to the catalytic effects of traces of chromium in such rocks. It was already known that the F-T process can produce large amounts of methane in a gas-phase synthesis reaction -- but "experiments [before now] have yielded conflicing results over (1) the feasibility of F-T synthesis in most geological environments, where synthesis would likely take place in the aqueous rather than gas phase, and (2) whether higher hydrocarbons such as ethane and propane can be produced by this mechanism." The Foustoukos-Seyfried study confirms that both are not only possible but easy -- whch would seem to increase the likelihood that Martian methane may be produced the same way, by subsurface reactions within geothermally heated strata with a good deal of melted water ice in them.

(The quotes, by the way, are from Barbara Lollar's accompanying "Science" commentary "Life's Chemical Kitchen" -- which is not, alas, available free on the Web.)

Alex R. Blackwell

Methane in Martian Air Suggests Life Beneath the Surface
The New York Times
November 23, 2004

Alex R. Blackwell

I thought I would ask: Has this blog become inactive?

Bruce Moomaw

No, Alex, as far as I know it's merely comatose. (I suspect a lot of us are waiting either for data from MARSIS, or for the first genuine attempts by the MER scientists to state a conclusion as to what they're really seeing on Mars.)

Charles Schmidt


I wonder what they'll find at the heat shield (MER B). Is it just me, or are the rovers extraordinarily slow-moving? Hard winter.
Interesting theory about updrafts from the surface keeping the solar arrays more free of dust than anticipated. Whaddya say....

Oh, and I ordered a copy of Mapping Mars for our school library (I'm an ESL teacher doing a Mars unit next week.) a book unto which i am unabashedly fond.
What's new M. Morton? Let's hear it for a part two then.

Bruce Moomaw

One series of lab tests had already indicated that dust devils should do a fine job of cleaning dust off the MER solar panels ( http://www.lpi.usra.edu/meetings/lpsc2004/pdf/1402.pdf ).

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