back to article NASA: Mars is good habitat for Terry Pratchett dragons

In a development which may untwist a few knickers around the internet, NASA scientists have now explained just what their Phoenix robot lander has found in the soil of Mars - and what the implications are for possible discovery of life on the Red Planet. Following news that the White House had received secret briefings in …


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  1. Rob

    Quality Control

    "The chance that we are following this correctly is roughly equivalent to that of a man with no arms throwing a handful of jelly through a falling doughnut at fifty yards without touching the sides."

    Have you tested this out? If so I want to see the video, purely for scientific authenticity you understand and not for the sole purpose of laughing my arse off.

  2. dervheid

    At least...

    you're being honest about the "SCIENCE QUALITY".

    Love the image(s) conjured up. Best laugh I've had so far today.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    Dumb conclusions ....

    And if I'm following this right, they've found evidence of a substance used in rocket fuel, near where they've landed their rocket?

  4. Tim


    He could always throw it with his feet. After all mine can kill at 20 yards.

  5. cjk

    Mars plays dice

    "The chance that we are following this correctly is roughly equivalent to..."

    It's a million-to-one chance, but it might just work!

  6. Stephen Gazard

    perchlorates are dangerous

    Granted, in very small quantities and handled carefully, they are ok, but perchlorates mixed with organic substances (such as petrol, alcohol, etc.) are quite likely to go explode, hence their use in rocket fuel. A perchlorate is ClO4 (negative charge), and wants to oxidise most things it comes in contact with.

    Never mind that they can also be shock sensitive, this is just bad science coming out of NASA, and I agree with the comment about finding perchlorates near where they landed. seems a bit odd.

  7. Vulch

    Rocket fuel

    "evidence of a substance used in rocket fuel, near where they've landed their rocket?"

    Landed a rocket that uses a completely different type of fuel to that discovered. Which is technically an oxidiser and not a fuel anyway.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Jelly and Doughnuts

    This sounds like a new Reg measure of (unlikely) probability. Does the doughnut have sugar on it?

  9. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

    It's worse than that, Jim..

    "And if I'm following this right, they've found evidence of a substance used in rocket fuel, near where they've landed their rocket?"

    Not near. Under.

  10. CharleyBoy


    We found a nasty substance where we sampled - ergo Mars is full of nasty substances. Meanwhile one metre to either side...

  11. Edwin


    Don't you know that million-to-one chances come up nine times out of ten?

    I'm all about science, mind, and drawing conclusions, but suspect CharleyBoy's comment isn't far off the mark.

    In any case, the only conclusion NASA seems to be making is 'there are perchlorates on Mars'.

    Behind the scenes, people deep inside NASA are no doubt wondering why they upped the hype so high, when the only conclusions that could reasonably have lived up to the hype (life definitely does / can not exist on Mars) are the least likely by far...

  12. alistair millington

    Nice images.

    I just like the idea of a creature fed on the stuff walking up and urinating on the mars lander because it's new with a funny smell.

  13. Eddie Edwards

    Slashdot FTW

    Here's some stuff from yesterday's Slashdot discussion on this topic, paraphrased for additional inaccuracy:

    * Lithium perchlorate liberates oxygen when heated. Perchlorates may be useful for creating oxygen on Mars.

    * Other perchlorates are useful as a rocket fuel. Perchlorates may be useful for getting craft off of Mars.

    * The perchlorates they have found are probably not contaminants. AFAICT it's like finding diesel under the car when it runs on petrol. Of course contamination can't be completely ruled out this quickly. It's a preliminery result.

    * Which perchlorate have they found? It does make a difference!

    But basically the gist I got was that perchlorates might be a very useful thing to find on a planet you might want to visit, stay awhile on, and then return from.

  14. Alan

    Heart of Gold

    "The chance that we are following this correctly is roughly equivalent to that of a man with no arms throwing a handful of jelly through a falling doughnut at fifty yards without touching the sides."

    Now If NASA used an Infinite Improbability Drive they could use the jelly throwing man to power their ships...

    **btw is that US jelly, as in fruit based preserve, or UK jelly, as in the stuff fed to hyperactive kids at birthday parties**

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    Nothing to see here, move along now

    had NASA not got their own knickers in a twist by dint of underestimating the public's ability to comprehend such mind-fucking concepts as "We might have found something, but we're not sure yet, can we get back to you on that?" and then running scared from the Interweb conspiracy bearpit, this would have just been an entry in the (very informative) Phoenix blog, rather than a headless chicken exercise


    While I'm on, the perchlorate used Phoenix's rocketry was only a part of the Delta launch vehicle, not the lander itself. There was no contamination detected on landing, and the scoop was scraped clean on other soil samples: any perchlorate in these samples hasn't come from Earth.

  16. Tom

    @ Alan

    Yes Alan, actual Jelly, not Jam.

    Chips any one?

  17. ryan

    no subject

    i'm a little disappointed the AMFM script hasn't run against this story yet...

  18. Christian Cook

    So where was the playmobil mock up?

    Of this:

    "The chance that we are following this correctly is roughly equivalent to that of a man with no arms throwing a handful of jelly through a falling doughnut at fifty yards without touching the sides."

  19. Anonymous Coward

    Pedant Alert

    Is that really a doughnut or a doughring? Or are you trying to make it even harder for your jelly thrower by giving him a target that doesn't have a hole in it?

    OK, OK I'm going.....

  20. Anonymous Coward


    "* SCIENCE QUALITY WARNING: The chance that we are following this correctly is roughly equivalent to that of a man with no arms throwing a handful of jelly through a falling doughnut at fifty yards without touching the sides."

    I resemble that remark!

    Yours sincerely.


  21. Another Mac User

    Or maybe they didn't find it

  22. Martin


    Jelly & Doughnuts !

  23. Tim Parker

    My beautiful what ?..

    Of course another thing perchlorates are good for is getting things whiter than white - at least when hot enough, say around 60 degrees [0] , that they decompose into lots of lovely stuff like hydrogen peroxide.

    Soooo i've got this straight, you've got lots of water and bits of washing powder...

    Old Martian lauderette, got to be. Stands treason (as they say down here)

    [0] you ever wonder why the temperatures on washing machines are the values they are, or what the 'Per' in Persil refers to ?

  24. Anonymous Coward


    "It's a million-to-one chance, but it might just work!"

    The chances of anything coming from Mars, is a million to one they claimed.

  25. Paul Bristow

    Re: Mars plays dice

    "It's a million-to-one chance, but it might just work!"

    ...but according to Terry Pratchett, million-to-one chances work nine times out of ten.

  26. Graham Dawson Silver badge

    @ac re: million-to-one

    Aye, and if hollywood is believed, nine times out of ten they bloody well turn up in california, where they're beaten off by the pretty dude, the sassy woman, the geek and the dog.

    To be serious for a moment, correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't the polar lander drop down on a parachute for the final part of its landing? With an airbag? No rockets involved...

    And now, I've just realised what some of the mysterious "box shaped" objects in the earlier photographs actually were... the supposed "machinery on mars" as, I think a Mr Hoagland had it, is actually The Luggage!

  27. Dave Bell

    Cats and Dragons

    There are some politicians who deserve to be presented with live dragons, instead of cute kitty-cats.

  28. Michael O'Malley

    @ Tim Parker

    The "per" in Persil is perborate, says Henkel, which invented the name.

  29. Rob

    @ Dave Bell

    Your title reminded me of "The Game of Rat and Dragon" an excellent short story by Cordwainer Smith. Humans and cats, partnered up to fight aliens, which the humans see as dragons, but the cats see as rats.

    As for politicians - just feed them to a giant kitten, perhaps a lion or a Bengal tiger...

  30. milan


    'The chances of anything coming from Mars, is a million to one they claimed.'

    But still they came?

    Secret presidential briefings, oh noes! You wouldn't imagine that the upper echelons of the US government might get informed before the regular peons on something like extra planetary exploration would you?

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not entirely unexpected

    The Viking missions were the first successful landers designed to look for signs of life. They found carbon dioxide was released when Martian soil was wetted and nutrients added. The initial suspicion was that microbes had been found in the soil and had been incubated, but later tests showed that biological reactions were unlikely and that the soil must contain a powerful oxidising agent.

    The big question for the last thirty years has been to try and work out what it is in the soil. Peroxides have been a favourite, but it looks like perchlorate ions are the guilty parties.

    Now it'd be nice to know what sort of concentrations we're looking at - high quantities would pretty much remove any possibility of life at this site since perchlorate reacts strongly with organic molecules.

  32. Anonymous Coward



  33. Luther Blissett

    Confusing the hymn and the hymn-sheet

    Where there's rocket fuel, there's life, for sure. Presumably NASA pointed a finger at the lander engine maker, who then said "It wasn't us, guv, honest". Ergo, it must be life on Mars.

    Whatever NASA, ESA, and other rocket-propelled boffins get up to, it's not "science". Science requires (a) honesty in regard to facts (to tell apart truth and falsehood), (b) possession and use of a faculty of logical thinking (to deduce correctly from facts). Tendentious and tedious, but essential now that science has gone postmodern and scientists rely on the fiat dollar. Teaching science is not about making sure everyone sings from the same hymn sheet. "Scientists" like that need a Zen master with a big stick, to hasten the return to sense should anyone point a finger into space and shout out "The Moon!"

  34. DrDCB

    Just a Coinkydink?

    So, at the same time NASA find Perchlorate on Mars, an Dutch research group published a paper that basically says, we've solved the structure of the microbial enzyme responsible for perchlorate metabolism in terrestrial bacteria.... can it really be a coincidence?

  35. Garth


    Normally I might agree with you, but explaining the complexities of such a discovery to King George seems like a waste of everyone's time.

  36. amanfromMars Silver badge

    Secret Echelon XXXXPloits...... NOFORN Phormed.

    "i'm a little disappointed the AMFM script hasn't run against this story yet..." .... By ryan Posted Wednesday 6th August 2008 11:00 GMT

    Maybe it is, ryan, Slowly and Surely and Stealthily ....... Tempting Providence 42 Save Face Mitigating Program Meltdown. However, at Critical Mass do Shared Offering of Controls become Obsolete and Transfer to Enigmatic Proxies.

    Proper Preparation and Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance Permitting AI a Sane DisRegard of Haste. ...... but ITs Tide and Time waits for No Man and certainly Never Ever for Fools on a Hill. ......... Are you Properly Prepared? You cannot say you were not Warned and/or Advised, can you?

  37. GrahamT

    "million-to-one chance succeeds nine times out of ten"

    Isn't that one of Terry Pratchett's laws of Narative Causality? Now if they'd found narrativium on Mars...

    By the way, @Michael O'Malley, I always thought Persil was so called as it is French for parsley. Next you will be telling me Fairy Liquid doesn't come from fairies.

  38. peter


    Imagine if we sent a manned mission, they would need no washing powder, which is quiet heavy, a few KG as least.

  39. Rick

    Rocket fuel

    The only rockets on the Phoenix lander are monopropellant hydrazine thrusters used for the final part of its landing. No perchlorate of any kind could have been brought to Mars by Phoenix.

  40. Tim
    Black Helicopters

    Imagine the initial presidential briefing!

    Mr Chief of Staff, shall we go public with the discovery of Autobots on Mars?


    But they know we're excited, I wet myself on my way here and left a great big smelly puddle!

    Just tell them you found some weird chemical on Mars and it might be important but it might not!

    Oh, ok then.

  41. Andrew Rodland

    Indeed my first thought

    Once the word "perchlorate" had a little time to seep into my brain, was "ammonium perchlorate composite propellant."

  42. Chris G

    Don't forget

    That everything us mortals read about the mission is the result of long discussions as to WHAT can be released and then is passed thru and partially digested by a press officer. So, for the time being don't make too much of anything in the press releases.

    That said, I keep getting a mental picture of somebody standing/lying/slithering behind the cameras, laughing it's self into a puddle wondering what spurious evidence it can present next to the silly earthling's lander. Don't be surprised if the next remarkable chemical to be found on Mars chemically resembles urine !

  43. Zad

    Space - The final front ear

    Still, I guess perchlorate is a good source for liberating oxygen though? Ammonium perchlorate might be the best form, having nitrogen and hydrogen.

    I hope they are now doing tests on the earth based rover model, to see what responses it has, and if they might have detected it at the other locations. Before they performed this analysis, I believe they performed a baseline analysis to see what contaminants were present.

    I trust they will name this sample location Errol!

  44. Ron Luther
    Black Helicopters

    Perk You Leer 8?

    Confidodentially, the 'zec briefing lasted 6 hours just to 'splain the 'nunciation.

    There wasn't no time left to talk 'bout any 'dem 'mplicashun thangs.

  45. Tawakalna

    so where did Obi-Wan b*gger off to?

    on those Martian pix that were floating around a while back, my peridolia sensor observed that Mars was actually Tatooine, to wit, Obi-Wan Kenobi on a Krayt Dragon pretending to be the Little Mermaid, with at least *two* clearly distinguishable Jawa Sandcrawlers as well as loads of other stuff that I can see (oddly no-one else can, must be an alien conspirancy!)

    So where are they now? All b*ggered off since they realised the silly Earth people were up to mischief, we saw all this coming during the Clangers. Earth people come with space podules, aliens hide under the ground, humans walk around for a bit and leave some junk behind, then go home, aliens come back out, steal the space junk and build hot-water central heating out of it!

    I'm onto you, aManFromMars; you just want a free boiler. Can't say I blame you, with gas prices the way they are....

  46. amanfromMars Silver badge

    Ignition Sequence Main Engine Start .....

    "Mr Chief of Staff, shall we go public with the discovery of Autobots on Mars?" .... By Tim Posted Wednesday 6th August 2008 15:48 GMT

    Would they have that luxury of choice, Tim, in something so Cuil?

  47. Mike


    I wish they'd put microphones on these landers so we could hear whats happening on mars. You know, ambient noise, winds, rock slides that sort of thing. NASA could stream it live. I think it'd be a big hit.

  48. Stevie

    Science - Learn Some Now



    So Mars is made up of powedered hyper-bleach and this is a positive indicator for life?

    No wonder my swimming pool was such a mess last year. So much for Ultra-Shokkk, Slo-Dissolve ChloroKleen, Sluj-B-Gon and the rest of the useless perchlorate-crazed swimming pool chemical industry.

    Bah. I'm filling the thing with sand next year. Maybe I can breed one of those giant, hallucinogen-metabolising worms from Dune in it and recoup the thousands of dollars it's cost me to date.

  49. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @ Mike & mics

    There was one on the Mars Polar Lander which went foom, so they didn't get any results from it. There _is_ a mic on board Phoenix, attached to the landing camera that was never used as a bug was found that meant if it transferred an image at the wrong time during descent, Phoenix would also go foom. Turning this mic on hasn't been ruled out at a later point in the mission, though there's no word on the roaming charges.

    No sound has been recorded from the surface of Mars yet, but not for a lack of trying

  50. TeeCee Gold badge


    They couldn't broadcast it anyway. The Spice Girls hold the copyright on tedious tuneless shite.

  51. Beelzeebub

    The chances of anything coming from Mars is a million to one, they said.

    ...'nuff said.

    Miles hotter than Mars here, no coat needed (still no fat boy).

  52. JBR


    Fairy Liquid- would that be fairy compressee, juiced fairy, fairy milk or some other kind of fairy secretion?

  53. Tim Parker

    @ Michael O'Malley

    D'oh !

    Absolutely - and that is indeed what I was thinking about, but I must have been having a bit of a weird moment and didn't double check. Thanks for correction.

  54. John F***ing Stepp
    Dead Vulture

    A Perchlorate bit my sister once.

    But she got better.

    {Taking the one where the bird got hit with a stick, went all NASA on it.}

  55. David Pollard
    Thumb Up

    @ Mike Richards - Not entirely unexpected

    A small and dedicated band bas maintained for years that Viking detected life, even though the results could be well explained by the presence of oxidising agents. NASA seems to have had something like an arms-length alliance with this group, which feeds the minds of many with extravagant ideas.

    Wild pseudoscience and speculation in part powers the PR operation that is needed to fund the race for space, and the nukes in space lobby that piggybacks on it. Water having been found on Mars, it can't but cause concern in some quarters that other aspects of its environment are shown to be distinctly inhospitable.

    Watch out for 'yes, but there could still be life deeper underground' stories (possibly using radioactivity as an energy source).

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