All Star Trek fans are familiar with the ‘Prime Directive’, which mandates that Starfleet is to not interfere with the natural development of other species, especially primitive ones. For years NASA has been studying Mars and searching for life forms, but a new scientific study suggests they may have actually destroying signs of life…oops.
IT’S A COOKER!
Like the Viking landers in the 70s, the current Mars Phoenix lander has not detected any life. But a new study is questioning the method by which they are trying to find that evidence of life, suggesting that they may be destroying the evidence in the process of looking for it. That is what is suggested in a new Scientist article on the study
…last year, NASA’s Phoenix lander, which also failed to detect organics on Mars, stumbled on something in the Martian soil that may have, in effect, been hiding the organics: a class of chemicals called perchlorates.
At low temperatures, perchlorates are relatively harmless. But when heated to hundreds of degrees Celsius they release a lot of oxygen, which tends to cause any nearby combustible material to burn. For that very reason, perchlorates are used in rocket propulsion.
The Phoenix and Viking landers looked for organic molecules by heating soil samples to similarly high temperatures to evaporate them and analyse them in gas form. When Douglas Ming of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and colleagues tried heating organics and perchlorates like this on Earth, the resulting combustion left no trace of organics behind.
What would Captain Picard say!? The good news is that the upcoming lander from the European Space Agency will use a different method, which New Scientist says will use a lower temperature and not destroy any organics in the process.
Phoenix scoops up soil for the cooker – is it destroying evidence of life in the process?
TrekMovie Programming Note: Science Friday taking a break
As I noted recently on Twitter, Kayla is on a real science field trip and so our weekly science update column is on hiatus for about three weeks. But if any big science news crops up (especially with a Trek connection), I will try to fill in for her.