back to article NASA's Curiosity finds signs of ancient life on Mars. Or maybe not. More data needed

NASA's Curiosity rover has collected samples of rock from the surface of Mars that are rich in a type of carbon associated with biological processes on Earth. Is it a sign of ancient life? Well… maybe. It could be the result of methane having been released into the atmosphere of Mars by bacteria. That methane was then maybe …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Much though I appreciate the research they're doing, I have to laugh at how the media just jumps on any hint of the rovers having encountered signs of life.

    Fortunately the scientists doing the work seem to be a bit more level headed, couching the slim chance with all the equally plausible explanations.

    Personally I think Mars had life on it at one point, but very primitive life, likely never beyond lichen if that.

    1. Disgusted Of Tunbridge Wells Silver badge

      NASA don't exactly help themselves.

      They issue press releases like "MASSIVE NEW LIFE CHANGING DISCOVERY DISCOVERED BY OUR SPACE BOFFINS!!! OMG!1! Tune in at 6 to have your understanding of the universe turned upside down. Have we met ET? We aren't saying. Wink wink. [X-files theme plays out]"

      The actual announcement is that they've found some trace evidence of the possible existence of a compound that might have been produced by ancient bacteria but probably wasn't that they previously thought was 95% likely but can now upgrade that to 97%.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        NASA doesn't do that

        Unlike ElReg commenters and some sections of the press NASA is interested in the data.

        The title of this article in PNAS is Depleted carbon isotope compositions observed at Gale crater, Mars.

        The title of the press release is NASA’s Curiosity Rover Measures Intriguing Carbon Signature on Mars.

        As for your comment "might have been produced by ancient bacteria but probably wasn't",

        Wrong, wrong, wrong.

        Curiosity found that some samples had a higher concentration of Carbon 12 versus Carbon 13. On Earth this is due to bacteria selectively using Carbon 12. NASA posits that there might be a biological origin but that it could also due to non biological processes although any non biological process would have to account for the Carbon 12 excess occurring in only some of the samples. They do not favor any explanation.

        Personally, given the observations going back to the Viking labeled release (LR) experiment, through the various Martian meteorites, right up to these observations, Occam's Razor says that primitive Martian life is the best comprehensive answer.

    2. DJV Silver badge

      "very primitive life, likely never beyond lichen if that"

      So, pretty much on par with what sits between a politician's ears then...

      1. Paul Cooper

        Re: "very primitive life, likely never beyond lichen if that"

        So, pretty much on par with what sits between a politician's ears then..

        I think the lichen's lawyers might be knocking at your door - that's probably libel!

        1. DJV Silver badge

          Re: "very primitive life, likely never beyond lichen if that"

          You're right! I have received notice from the lichen's lawyers that I am to be sued by their clients for libel. So, due to the speed (or lack thereof) of their metabolism, myself (or more likely my heirs) will face the courts sometime around the year 3786.

    3. DS999 Silver badge

      NASA promoted that as a goal for Curiosity

      One of its primary missions if not its primary mission is to look for evidence of life or previous life on Mars. It isn't like it went to Mars with a goal of only looking for pretty rocks, and the damn journalists want to keep talking about life for some reason.

    4. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Lichen are fairly complex. Researchers may have to set their sites much lower.

      The Holy Grail would be any form of life that uses something other than DNA or at least DNA that's radically different than what's on Earth. We know that bits of Mars have fallen on Earth and there is a small possibility that Earth got banged hard enough to send material to Mars in the distant past. It would be a bit of a downer if life was found on Mars that has the same origins as on Earth.

  2. macjules

    I gather that a probe from a galaxy far. far away landed in the middle of the Sahara desert recently and concluded that there are no signs of life on this planet.

    1. Chris G

      A probe from anywhere far , far away could land in almost any capital city and conclude there is no intelligent life.on this planet.

    2. MachDiamond Silver badge

      "I gather that a probe from a galaxy far. far away landed in the middle of the Sahara desert recently and concluded that there are no signs of life on this planet."

      Surprisingly, there are lots of signs of life in the Sahara, Atacama and Antarctic deserts. I did some work with the NASA Spaceward Bound program some years ago around Death Valley in California looking for extremophiles. The premise of the program was to look for forms of life in extreme environments to have an idea of what to look for on Mars. Dr Chis McKay was the lead. Really fascinating work.

    3. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      You need to update your knowledge base on the Sahara. It is positively teeming with life.

      The only real problem is the downer the probe would get if it actually happened upon a human being.

  3. Fr. Ted Crilly Bronze badge

    I can help with that...

    'Scientists would also really like to check out the carbon content of a methane plume released from the surface' give me a moment to load up on cabbage and pears...

    1. JassMan

      Re: I can help with that...

      Maybe there are martian cows wandering around which avoid anything mechanical, or they are just very hard to see.

      1. slimshady76

        Re: I can help with that...

        My money is on Martian water bears!

    2. bombastic bob Silver badge

      Re: I can help with that...

      cabbage and pears and really good chili con carne with beans!! That would DEFINITELY be biological.

      /me pointing out that C14 is created in the atmosphere by cosmic radiation (or that's the theory). C12 generally stayed closer to the ground. Although nitrogen is responsible for C14 it is likely (due to the presence of nitrogen throughout the solar system) that Mars once had lots of it in the atmosphere, as does earth. Jupiter and Saturn have a lot of ammonia, i.e. NH3, in their atmospheres. But CO2 is much heavier than most other gases and so when Mars lost most of its atmosphere, the lighter stuff virtually disappeared, leaving the heavier components like CO2 in higher relative concentration than you find on Earth.

  4. Sixtiesplastictrektableware

    Groundless Comment Alert

    Ok. So, maybe a couple weeks ago (confined temporal dilation) I was talking to my brother, who opens the convo with "didjya hear that NASA went to a bunch of religious leaders to ask about the consequences of the discovery of extra terrestrial life?"

    Take my word, much speculative hilarity ensued. Now, this.

    I just love being humbled by knowledge. Never takes much, and it's always fun.

  5. Pen-y-gors

    Not bad

    for a machine designed to last for two years. And Opportunity lasted 14 years, on a designed lifespan of 90 days!

    If NASA built cars, we'd still be driving roadworthy Model-T Fords.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Not bad

      Well, to be fair, there are collectors in North America with "roadworthy Model-T Fords" being driven around. I believe there is even one here in Yorkton, SK that does (or did) the Exhibition parade in the summer.

    2. JassMan

      Re: Not bad

      If NASA built cars, we'd still be driving roadworthy Model-T Fords.

      If NASA built cars, we would have no pollution problem here on earth as we would all prefer to walk. I can walk further in one day with gammy knees than Curiosity has gone in 10 years. In my misspent youth I walked around Wales doing 25miles a day and that was up hills and down dales (unless dales only exist in Yorkshire). I still try to walk at least a mile a every day simply because my GP says it is movement that keeps the knees from getting worse. I often do 4 miles (after dosing up on high strength paracetamol) so that's a week and a bit to do the same as Curiosity.

      1. tip pc Silver badge

        Re: Not bad

        > I still try to walk at least a mile a every day simply because my GP says it is movement that keeps the knees from getting worse.

        Try cycling, helps my knees feel better the following day.

  6. Potemkine! Silver badge

    Welcome to the 21st century

    Curiosity has rolled around Mars since 2012 covering over 16 miles

    WTF are miles?

    1. Spherical Cow

      Re: Welcome to the 21st century

      I vaguely recall they are an obscure multiple of the gooch, which is the distance between some dead king's scrotum and anus. Or possibly a different bodily measurement just as meaningless involving his nose. I dunno.

    2. ColonelDare

      Re: Welcome to the 21st century

      > WTF are miles?

      According to the Reg Standards Converter: 25.1467 Devon Fatbergs.

      That is of course based on the Sidmouth fatberg, not the more popular Devonian Plymouth fatberg which at only 164ft is a more convenient size for everyday use.


      BBC's Colossal 210ft Sidmouth fatberg

      Other notable fatbergs

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nothing there...

    Probably just smelled what they're shovelling.

    1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge

      Re: Nothing there...

      Why do you even read these articles, never mind comment on them?

      1. redpawn

        Re: Nothing there...

        He lives under a bridge. What else does he have to do all day?

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