Stromatolites on Mars?

Guest “geological story telling” by David Middleton

The Case for Past Life on Mars Gets Stronger
But how much evidence is needed until we can say there’s proof?

By Dirk Schulze-Makuch
AIRSPACEMAG.COM
APRIL 13, 2020

In a new paper published in the International Journal of Astrobiology, Vincenzo Rizzo from the National Research Center in Cosenza, Italy, asks a provocative question: Why are many scientists reluctant to accept the use of geological methods to identify biological processes on Mars, when those methods are commonly used on Earth?

He points to a case in Germany from 1908, when a scientist by the name of Ernst Kalkowsky proposed that layered mounds, columns, and sheet-like sedimentary rocks called stromatolites were of biological nature. His contemporaries did not believe him. But Kalkowsky was later proven correct, when it was recognized that stromatolites formed because biofilms—composed of cyanobacteria and other microorganisms—trapped sediments. Stromatolites are now known to be the oldest evidence for life on Earth, stretching back at least 3.5 billion years, and they still exist in some remote regions, such as Shark Bay, Australia.

In his paper Rizzo follows in Kalkowsky’s footsteps by analyzing images from the Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity rovers on Mars that indicate the presence of biotic macrostructures such as stromatolites. He suggests that if no non-biological explanation can be found, the images should be considered as possible candidates for Martian stromatolites. Rizzo shows many examples of structures that have an amazing resemblance to stromatolites on Earth.

[…]

Air & Space Magazine

Why does this remind me of amateur crater hunters? Because, it’s interpreting photographic imagery without physically examining the rocks. The difference is that we can’t, yet, physically examine the rocks on Mars. The rovers and orbiters have provided us with a lot of data about the rocks. Meteorites found on Earth, thought to be from Mars, can be physically examined; but they aren’t representative of the sedimentary geology of Mars.

I have little doubt that when we finally send manned missions to Mars and study its sedimentary rocks in detail, we will find evidence of past microscopic life… But, just because a picture of something looks like a stromatolite, doesn’t mean it is a stromatolite. Lots of visual images of things on Mars turn out not to be what they first appeared to be.

“The original ‘Face on Mars’ image taken by NASA’s Viking 1 orbiter, in grey scale, on July, 25 1976. Image shows a remnant massif located in the Cydonia region. (Image credit: NASA)” Space.com

Over the next 25 years, improved imagery revealed that the face was rather faceless…

Oops! NASA

Evidence is steadily mounting that Mars could have supported life in the past and there are tantalizing indications that the Red Planet might still support be microscopic organisms. So, unlike the Face on Mars and impact craters circled up on satellite images, there is reason to believe that geologic features resembling stromatolites, might actually be something like stromatolites… But, we can’t possibly know until astronauts bring Martian sedimentary rocks back home to Earth.

Defining Stromatolites

Scientists disagree on how to define stromatolites. A common definition goes something like: A laminated rock formed by the growth of blue-green algae (i.e., cyanobacteria)”. This definition is, in fact, such a gross oversimplification as be scientifically useless. It does contain a modicum of truth, however, in that the largest volume of stromatolitic formations was likely formed by biogenic processes involving photosynthetic cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria’s metabolic byproduct, oxygen, rusted the earth, pumped enormous oxygen poison to them into earth’s atmosphere, and in so doing paved the way for aerobic-based life to emerge and diversify; cyanobacteria’s contributions to life led to their own prodigious decline.

Stromatolites and their close cousins the thrombolites, are rock-like buildups of microbial mats that form in limestone- or dolostone-forming environments. Together with oncoids (formerly called “algal biscuits” or “Girvanella”), they typically form by the baffling, trapping, and precipitation of particles by communities of microorganisms such as bacteria and algae. In some cases, they can form inorganically, for example when seawaters are oversaturated with certain chemicals resulting in precipitation. Stromatolites are defined as laminated accretionary structures that have synoptic relief (i.e., they stick up above the seafloor). Stromatolite-building communities include the oldest known fossils, dating back some 3.5 billion years when the environments of Earth were too hostile to support life as we know it today. We can presume that the microbial communities consisted of complex consortia of species with diverse metabolic needs, and that competition for resources and differing motility among them created the intricate structures we observe in these ancient fossils. Microbial communities diversified through time, with eukaryotic organisms eventually joining the mix.

Excluding some exceedingly rare Precambrian fossils such as the Russian White Sea Ediacaran fauna, stromatolites and they’re the only fossils encoding the first 7/8th of the history of life on earth. They encode the role that ancient microorganisms played in the evolution of life on earth and in shaping earth’s environments. The fossil record of stromatolites is astonishingly extensive, spanning some four billion years of geological history with the forming organisms possibly having occupied every conceivable environment that ever existed on earth. Today, stromatolites are nearly extinct in marine environments, living a precarious existence in only a few localities worldwide. Modern stromatolites were first discovered in Shark Bay, Australia in 1956, and throughout western Australia in both marine and non-marine environments. New stromatolite localities have continued to be discovered in various places such as the Bahamas, the Indian Ocean and Yellowstone National Park, to name but a few localities.

Fossil Museum Dot Net
Stromatolites
Lower Proterozic (2.3 billion)
Eastern Andies South of Cochabamba, District of Cochabamba, Bolivia, South America
Fossil Museum Dot Net

Geological Evidence for Past Life on Mars

The subject paper, Rizzo, 2020, is pay-walled. However, Vincenzo Rizzo was a coauthor of a paper published in February 2020, Mars: Algae, Lichens, Fossils, Minerals, Microbial Mats, and Stromatolites in Gale Crater, Joseph et al., 2020. They make a very good case for the morphological similarities of Martian rocks to Earth rocks bearing microbial fossils. Here is an example:

Joseph et al., 2020

The similarities are striking, but they note that…

The authors were unable to precisely determine if these specimens are biological or consist of Martian minerals and salt formations that mimic biology. Therefore, a review of Martian min-erals and mineralization was conducted and the possibility these formations may be abiogenic is discussed. It is concluded that the overall pattern of evidence is mutually related and that specimens resembling algae-like and other organisms may have colonized the Gale Crater, beginning billions of years ago. That some or most of these specimens may be abiotic, cannot be ruled out. Additional investigation targeting features similar to these should be a priority of future studies devoted to the search for current and past life on Mars.

(1) (PDF) Mars: Algae, Lichens, Fossils, Minerals, Microbial Mats, and Stromatolites in Gale Crater. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/339777176_Mars_Algae_Lichens_Fossils_Minerals_Microbial_Mats_and_Stromatolites_in_Gale_Crater [accessed Apr 15 2020].

Joseph et al., 2020

Fascinating stuff, but we won’t know for sure until we do this sort of thing on Mars…

“Astronaut Dave Scott on the moon during Apollo 15 in 1971. (NASA)” National Review
Dave Scott and the Genesis Rock (NASA) National Review

Even then, we may not know for sure.

Pluto and the Genesis Rock
By JOSH GELERNTER
July 31, 2015

[…]

By 1965, NASA had 28 astronauts, all military or ex-military pilots. In a nod to science — which American scientists felt NASA was neglecting — it hired six more astronauts: three physicists, two MDs, and a geologist. The geologist was Harrison Schmitt. National Review readers may recognize the name — from 1977 to 1983, Schmitt was a Republican senator from New Mexico.

But long before he went into politics, he was NASA’s only geologist-astronaut. Geology was part of every astronaut’s training, but only in an uninspiring, perfunctory way. Schmitt knew it would be absurd for astronauts to arrive on the Moon and not understand what they were looking at. The lunar astronauts needed to take geology seriously; what they needed, Schmitt decided, was a really good teacher.

Schmitt picked out Leon Silver, a prominent CalTech geologist with whom Schmitt had studied as an undergrad. Silver was the sort of magnetic teacher each of us fondly remembers having had at one time or another; Schmitt thought he was just the man who could suck the pilot-astronauts into a world of stones and dirt.

[…]

Silver’s geology field trips became standard. The astronauts who went to the Moon knew they weren’t just looking for rocks, they were looking for clues to the Moon’s history and, by extension, the history of the Earth, of the solar system, and of all creation. They would keep their eyes open for collapsed lava tubes and dead volcanoes. They would examine impact craters of the sort that vanish on the geologically active Earth, but are preserved forever on the geologically dead Moon. They weren’t just looking for rocks — they were looking for specific minerals that could settle arguments about the Moon’s birth. Silver told them to keep their eyes open for anorthosite, distinguished by telltale white plagioclase crystals. Anorthosite, said Silver, would probably be scarce on the Moon — but it was what many geologists suspected the Moon’s original crust had been made of. Finding a piece of it would be a triumph for the Apollo missions, and for science.

And Silver was in Mission Control when one of his best students, astronaut Dave Scott, radioed to Houston: “Oh man! Guess what we just found! Guess what we just found! I think we found what we came for!”

What he’d found was the piece of anorthosite that’s now known as the “Genesis Rock.” The solar system is 4.5 billion years old; the Genesis Rock is just 100 million years younger. Planetary science had been revolutionized.

(In fact, 45 years later, the Genesis Rock is still making waves. In 2013, researchers at the University of Michigan discovered it contained traces of water, casting doubt on the dominant theories of the Moon’s formation.)

[…]

National Review

Science is never “settled”… When it settles, it gets boring.

References

Joseph, Rhawn & Graham, L & Büdel, Burkhard & Jung, Patrick & Kidron, Giora & Latif, Khalid & Armstrong, R & Harb, Hoda & Ray, Joseph George & Ramos, Geraldo & Consorti, Lorenzo & Rizzo, Vincenzo & Gibson, C & Schild, Rudolph. (2020). “Mars: Algae, Lichens, Fossils, Minerals, Microbial Mats, and Stromatolites in Gale Crater”. Journal of Astrobiology and Space Science Reviews 3. 40-111. 10.37720/jassr.03082020.

Rizzo, Vincenzo. (2020). “Why should geological criteria used on Earth not be valid also for Mars? Evidence of possible microbialites and algae in extinct Martian lakes”. International Journal of Astrobiology. 1-12. 10.1017/S1473550420000026.

Day 29 of America Held Hostage by ChiCom-19

At noon yesterday, Dallas County reported 10 fatalities in a single day…

Dallas County Health and Human Services is reporting 89 additional positive cases of COVID-19 today, bringing the total case count in Dallas County to 1,877. Ten additional deaths are being reported, including:

*A man in his 60’s who was a resident of a long-term care facility in the city of Dallas and had been critically ill in an area hospital.
*A man in his 70’s who was a resident of a long-term care facility in the city of Dallas and had been hospitalized in an area hospital.
*A man in his 80’s who was a resident of a long-term care facility in the city of Dallas and had been hospitalized in an area hospital.
*A woman in her 50’s who was a resident of a long-term care facility in the city of Dallas.
*A woman in her 90’s who was a resident of a long-term care facility in the city of Dallas.
*A man in his 50’s who was a resident of the city of Dallas and had been critically ill in an area hospital.
*A man in his 50’s who was a resident of the city of Dallas and had been critically ill in an area hospital.
*A man in his 30’s who was a resident of the city of Garland and had been critically ill in an area hospital.
*A woman in her 80’s who was a resident of the city of Mesquite and had been hospitalized in an area hospital.
*A man in his 80’s who was a resident of the city of DeSoto and had been found deceased at home.

2019 Novel Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19)

I could make a very insensitive remark, but I won’t. In the meantime, we all remain under “house arrest” thanks to Fire Marshal Gump.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins says Dallas is ‘in the middle’ of its coronavirus fight
As Dallas County announced its highest one-day COVID-19 death toll, Judge Clay Jenkins said the peak is projected for the end of April or early May.
Author: Teresa Woodard
Published: 6:11 PM CDT April 14, 2020

DALLAS — Three weeks to the day after Dallas County’s stay-at-home order went into effect, the county announced 10 COVID-19 related deaths, its highest one-day total.

The victims range from a man in his 30s to a woman in her 90s.

Five of them lived at Brentwood Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation facilities in the city of Dallas.

[…]

“Today is somber news,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins in a Tuesday afternoon news conference. “We lost 10 people today.”

[…]

“We are looking at a peak now that is either the end of this month, or maybe the beginning of next month,” he said. “I can’t stress how important it is that you don’t let up now.”

[…]

WFAA 8 ABC

Hey Gump! Look at your own fracking data!

CDC Week 14
CDC Week 15

Yesterday’s totals pushed the Mendoza Line crossing out to March 14, 2035…

Dallas CountyCHICOM-19
PopulationCasesDeaths
2,637,7721,877422.2%
% of population with0.07%0.00%
% with, rounded0.1%0.0%
% without99.93%100.0%
% without, rounded99.9%100%
Menodoza Line (.200)3/14/2035        0.200

Thankfully, the public’s patience with this “free trial” of socialism and the Fire Marshal Gump types is wearing thin.

Protesters against stay-at-home order block Lansing streets in ‘Operation Gridlock’
by Newschannel 3 Wednesday, April 15th 2020

LANSING, Mich. — On Wednesday, the Michigan Conservative Coalition protested Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order during a noon rally.

In a Facebook event, the promoted the protest as Operation Gridlock, encouraging protesters to drive their cars to Lansing, creating a traffic jam in the city.

“Everyone, every citizen, every business owner needs to get out of their house, out of their chair and get in their car, or truck, or anything that is legal to drive on taxpayer funded roads,” the Facebook event said. “Then drive to Lansing to circle the Michigan Capitol Building at 100 N. Capitol Avenue at noon on April 15.”

[…]

NBC25News

How about some classic music?

152 thoughts on “Stromatolites on Mars?

    • Over? Did you say “over”? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!

          • Anyone who doesn’t know all the best quotes from Animal House by heart should move that task to the top of their quarantine to do list. Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life (no insult intended!).

          • Of the three credited writers of Animal House, shot on the campus of my brothers’ alma mater (although both started out at less radical colleges), only one still survives.

            RIP Harold Ramis (d. 2014) and Douglas Kenney (d. 1980), whom John Belushi survived by two years. Long may you wave, Chris Miller. Director John Landis, how do you live with yourself?

          • Love Harold Ramis. I’m partial to Stripes. Mainly because it was filmed at Ft Knox at almost the same time I was there for Basic. The obstacle course they showed was same one I was tortured with.

            The barracks they used were actually temporary reception station barracks. We were in those for three days in June 1981 until assigned to our regular training companies, which had much nicer barracks.

            Dat’s da fact, Jack!

    • We are waiting … waiting … waiting for nothing to happen, as commanded by our elects.

      Damocles’ Sword of Truth must needs to cut long and wide and deep when this is over, to prevent it from happening again – next fall.

  1. Meanwhile Nancy Pelosi is doing fine, working down her stock of $13/pint gourmet ice creams in her $30,000 freezer.

    • California governor Gavin Newsom just announced a $125,000,000.00 program to help undocumented workers.

      Free money! Expect a new Gold Rush. How many politicians are documented as workers?

      • I was wondering how exactly will the $$ get to the “undocumented”. Surely, they aren’t sending their money directly to a bank account. Can an illegal immigrant legally create a bank account?

  2. David, your writing about stromatolites reminds me of sections of the Ordovician Vinnini fm. in north-central Nevada, part of the overthrust assemblage. The shallow water silts and cherts have some horizons saturated with fossilized stromatolite mounds. These mounds appear, at least to geologist wandering around in the field on a hot day, to be similar to the anatomical characteristics that make Dolly Parton well-known. In fact, the fossilized stromatolites are known as “Dolly Parton Structures”. They actually occur from AA to DD sizes, and these qualifiers are commonly utilized in field notes to describe the particular structures. Dolly Parton on Mars? Doubtful. Stay sane and safe.

    • There’s a reason why the Grand Tetons were named the Grand Tetons… And it wasn’t cleavage… 😆

      • I get your point. It was always funny to watch the expression on the faces of French people when the guy from Idaho bragged about the Grand Tetons.

    • I could add that small sand mounds on the icy shores of the St. Lawrence River in Québec were termed “monroes” by the geologist who first described them years ago.

    • I searched Google for you’re Dolly Part Mounds, but I didn’t find any rock formations.

      No; honestly, this WUWT page turned up, but nothing else, even with multiple searches and variations.

      • Greg, the term “Dolly Parton Structures” was a standard geologic description of Freeport Mining geologists working north of Elko, Nevada, in the Independence Mountains, like around the Jerritt Canyon Mine. Several of my associates worked for this company, and when I showed them the unique structures in the nearby Tuscarora Mountains they shared their knowledge of the subject, which knowledge was considerable and well-rounded.

        • There are always lots of industry- and company-specific nicknames that never make it to Google.

          “Reggie” = An apparent amplitude anomaly that is just a regional reflector.

          “Gator mouth” = A honking amplitude anomaly with a mother-fracking flat spot.

          “Farmer Flat Spot” = A flat spot, so obvious, that a reservoir engineer named Farmer recognized it.

          Back in the early 2000’s I submitted a plan of exploration (POE) for a deep prospect on a block in East Cameron South Addition. We didn’t have any well control deep enough to tie into. I had to come up with a name for the target. So I called it the NFI (no fracking idea) Sand. Our partners asked our landman, what “NFI” stood for? I said, “Tell them No Fossil Indicator.”

          • While working in Enterprise Software, I was assigned for a short while to account management for what I think is now Freeport McMoran (different owner at the time). In a conference room meeting among technical and exec types at their AZ copper mine, there was continued reference to “BFTs” (ore transport vehicles).

            I asked if the acronym meant the obvious, and was answered with schist-eating grins and “yes indeed”.

          • It’s not limited to geology or accounting. I will share this personal short story.

            I was lead test engineer on a rocket propellant tank loading process. We were following a pre-approved written test procedure with accompanying facility plumbing schematic. During the actual loading process, our team of engineers and technicians realized that there was a particular critical valve that mistakenly had not been identified by name in either the schematic or written procedure (e.g., “FV-3” for fuel valve #3, “HV-6” for helium valve #6). Since the valve had no name, I suggested on-the-spot that, going forward, we simply call it the “No Name Valve”. The team liked the idea, agreed, and we successfully completed the propellant tank loading process with repeated references to the No Name Valve.

  3. David,
    Sorry, there ins’t and never was life on Mars. Mars is too small. Mars’s atmosphere is actually a fairly good vacuum. The pressure at the average altitude of Mars is almost exactly at the triple point of water. So everything above average, can’t have liquid water, and so no life as we know it. Everything below average has liquid water for a few hours in the summer afternoon, the rest is frozen, so no life as we know it.
    In the past? not unless the planet gained mass and lost it since, unclear how that could happen. Atmospheric pressure is a product of gravity and the molecular weight of the gas that makes it up. CO2 is about the heaviest molecule that Mars can hold on to, and if a heaver one made higher pressure, it would still be there. Interesting, no photosynthesis can have occurred. Mars’s gravity is too low to hold onto oxygen.

    • If you were able to travel back to visit the Earth during the Archaean, you would likely not recognize it is the same planet we inhabit today. The atmosphere was very different from what we breathe today; at that time, it was likely a reducing atmosphere of methane, ammonia, and other gases which would be toxic to most life on our planet today. Also during this time, the Earth’s crust cooled enough that rocks and continental plates began to form.

      It was early in the Archaean that life first appeared on Earth. Our oldest fossils date to roughly 3.5 billion years ago, and consist of bacteria microfossils. In fact, all life during the more than one billion years of the Archaean was bacterial. At right is an artist’s depiction of what an Archaean coast might have looked like 3.5 billion years ago. The mounds in the foreground are stromatolites, colonies of photosynthetic bacteria which have been found as fossils in Early Archaean rocks of South Africa and Western Australia. Stromatolites increased in abundance throughout the Archaean, but began to decline during the Proterozoic. They are not common today.

      https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/precambrian/archaean.html

    • Early Mars, like Earth, was a different planet. It had a magnetosphere, since lost as its core cooled, due to lack of a large moon. As you note, its gravity is less, so that it’s easier for air molecules to escape. But as more evidence comes in, the conclusion becomes better supported that ancient Mars had a denser atmosphere and surface liquid water.

      I’m agnostic as to life on Mars, since we lack convincing evidence, but don’t rule it out. Microbes might not even need large bodies of surface liquid water to develop. The pockets of liquid water within ice might suffice.

      Not only amino acids, but nucleic and fatty acids, sugars, other organic compounds and phosphate groups form naturally. This happens in outer space as well as on Earth. These biomolecular building blocks of life arrive on our planet in meteorites, Besides also self-assembling here through various processes. Lightning is probably a minor source of amino acids and the peptides they form.

      We now know not just that all five nucleobases used in DNA and RNA do assemble spontaneously, but how they do so. Or at least one way for each of them. These monomers also naturally bond together into short chains under a variety of concentrated conditions, such as in water pockets in ice, thus forming oligomers of RNA, which can act both as an enzyme and a library of genetic information.

      So life can’t be ruled out on young Mars. It might even still be there under ground. It’s worth sending probes, if not people, to find out.

      • I fully agree. Mars was indeed a different place. It sure looks like liquid water existed on Mars. link There is also evidence that Mars previously had a denser atmosphere. link

        You can’t discount the possibility that life existed just based on current conditions.

        • I’d go over 50/50 odds for ancient life on Mars and under 50/50 for present. Will have to send purpose-built probes to find out objective reality vs. probability guess.

          • Glad you concur!

            Now let’s go and find out. But IMO for the near future, the fearless microbe hunters will have to be robots rather than astronauts (Martian mariners?, where the seas are of ice).

      • The problem is that the Mars mass, and so its gravity, can’t have changed much over the eons. Atmospheric pressure is a product of a planets gravity and average molecular mass and density of its atmospheric gasses. If you heat Mars, all you do is create more water vapor, which is half the weight of CO2, so the average atmospheric mass goes down, the density goes down, so the atmospheric pressure goes down.
        The only way Mars had a denser atmosphere in the past is if it had more mass.

        • Total Horst Schist…

          Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is an icy world whose surface is completely obscured by a golden hazy atmosphere. Titan is the second largest moon in our solar system. Only Jupiter’s moon Ganymede is larger, by just 2 percent. Titan is bigger than Earth’s moon, and larger than even the planet Mercury.

          This mammoth moon is the only moon in the solar system with a dense atmosphere, and it’s the only world besides Earth that has standing bodies of liquid, including rivers, lakes and seas, on its surface. Like Earth, Titan’s atmosphere is primarily nitrogen, plus a small amount of methane. It is the sole other place in the solar system known to have an earthlike cycle of liquids raining from clouds, flowing across its surface, filling lakes and seas, and evaporating back into the sky (akin to Earth’s water cycle). Titan is also thought to have a subsurface ocean of water.

          […]

          Our solar system is home to more than 150 moons, but Titan is unique in being the only moon with a thick atmosphere. At the surface of Titan, the atmospheric pressure is about 60 percent greater than on Earth—roughly the same pressure a person would feel swimming about 50 feet (15 meters) below the surface in theocean on Earth. Because Titan is less massive than Earth, its gravity doesn’t hold onto its gaseous envelope as tightly, so the atmosphere extends to an altitude 10 times higher than Earth’s—nearly 370 miles (600 kilometers) into space.

          https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/moons/saturn-moons/titan/in-depth/

          Titan has a weaker gravitational field than Mars.

          • “Total Horst Schist…” — You keep using that word…. I don’t think it means what you think it means.

            All true, and it’s temperature is 92K (-179C), and the rivers and lakes are methane, and it has no liquid water. Because of the low temperatures, it’s atmosphere is denser. Because it’s protected from the solar wind, which is much reduced that far from the Sun, by Saturn’s magnetosphere, it can have much higher atmosphere, and thus higher pressures. If Mars were in a similar situation, it would have a higher pressure. But it isn’t.

            I fail to see your point here.

          • Mars’s magnetic field is controversial. The main evidence for it is Martian meteorites, which are doubtful. The Martian density, at .7 earths, suggest that Mars is made of lighter stuff, and so probably didn’t have much of a magnetic field. It also doesn’t have a large moon to keep things stirred up, so it probably died away fairly quickly.

            So, my question is How did Mars have a significantly higher atmospheric pressure, while maintaining a temperature above 0C? (-30C for saturated salt water) I have shown why I doubt that, mainly the low gravity of Mars.

            The opposing view, as I understand it, is that there are canyons, that on earth could only be formed by running water, and rocks that on Earth could only form in water, therefore Mars must have had liquid water, and a denser atmosphere. That’s a lot like the early astronomers seen lines on Mars, saying they were canals. Since canals on Earth are made by civilizations, therefor Mars must have an advanced civilization.

          • Evidence for a past magnetic field has been directly measured in volcanic rocks of the Martian southern hemisphere by by orbiters and rovers.

            The canyons have been directly observed by orbiters and rovers.

            The hydrated mineralogy, including clay mineralogy, has been directly observed by orbiters and rovers.

            The presence of sedimentary features has been directly observed by orbiters and rovers.

          • Titan is protected from the solar wind 95% of the time by Saturn’s magnetic field. It also, like Venus, enjoys an induced magnetosphere, while lacking an intrinsic one.

            It might have held onto the N2, CH4 and more massive organic compounds in its atmosphere anyway, rather than losing them to space, as did Mars. The photodisassociation effect would be less powerful at Saturn’s distance from the Sun.

            But your point is valed, that Mars, like less massive Titan, would have had a denser atmosphere early in its life, as well as a magnetosphere. Hence sufficient pressure for liquid water on its surface. Solar power was weaker then, but the planet’s internal furnace warmer.

        • The evidence for Mars’ having a strong magnetosphere in the past is strong:

          https://www.space.dtu.dk/english/Research/Universe_and_Solar_System/magnetic_field

          Most likely, being smaller and lacking a large moon, Mars’ core cooled much more rapidly than Earth’s, so stopped generating a powerful magnetic field.

          Mars’ density, though lower than Earth’s, doesn’t rule out a nickel-iron core. Indeed it almost requires one. Our planet’s higher density owes to its position among the inner planets.

          I’d class the evidence for denser air and ancient surface water on Mars as overwhelming, but would perhaps be more prudent to say conclusive, persuasive or at least more likely than not.

    • Robert you are making the erroneous assumption that conditions on Mars millions of years were the same as condition on Mars today. By all indications that wasn’t true for Earth, so no reason to assume it was true for Mars. (and others have already pointed to some of the very many likely differences between then and now, so I won’t bother repeating them here)

  4. I work At JPL in Pasadena and all are the biggest fans of hoping for life on Mars, especially past life. Yes, we should keep looking. But the origin is such a mystery — and trials on Earth can get nowhere with how it started here, that we “have” to be skeptical of it occurring elsewhere. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. There is none. One poster here is an expert on life precursors and I defer to him on the latest science, but it is nowhere near understanding how it happened here. It is incredibly tough in getting life going. By all means look hard at Mars. But do not presume it will ever be found off Earth.

    • Like I wrote in the post, we won’t know for sure until we bring back suites of rock samples… Even then, we might not know. Geologists tend to open more questions than we close.

    • Thomas,

      Geology has a history of extremists insisting that their theory, and only their theory can be right, as in Neptunists versus Plutonists. What we have found is that sometimes one process may be responsible for geologic conditions, while in other situations, another process was clearly responsible.

      Implicit in your suggestion that we have to understand how life started on Earth is the assumption that there is only one way that life can be initiated. That is an assumption for which there is no evidence. At best, we might conclude that if life started the same way under similar conditions on Mars, then we can expect it to resemble primitive Earth life. However, because Mars is different, any former or present life may well be different.

      Indeed, if we should find evidence of life on Mars, and it is very different from life on Earth, it will tell us that life anywhere is more probable than we currently assume because the conditions under which it can be initiated are broader than what Earth has experienced. And, that is exactly why we should be looking for it ‘off world!’

      • The problem is water. Liquid water is such a perfect solvent. It’s hard to figure out how the organic processes can be carried out without it. Mars has none, never has had any.

        • Robert
          You claimed, “Mars has none [water], never has had any.” Then you have a good alternate explanation for the sedimentary geologic features that the Rovers have documented?

          • Mars is a different world. We don’t know. One could imagine it had to do with freezing and thawing of layers of dust, but we don’t know. One thing we do know is it isn’t water. If you look at the triple point diagram for water, you can see that at Mars pressure ( 6 millibars) , you can have solid water, ice, or water vapor, but no liquid water. Air pressure is a product of gravity and the weight of the air molecule. Unless Mars somehow gained mass, and the somehow lost it, it’s hard to see how it could have had water in the past. It all has to do with gravity, and atmospheric pressure.

          • Mars was a very different world 3 billion years ago. Even then, there is contemporary evidence of periodic surface expulsions of hypersaline water.

          • In 2018, Italian scientists reported the discovery of a subglacial lake on Mars, 1.5 km below the southern polar ice cap, with a horizontal extent of about 20 km, the first known stable body of liquid water on the planet.

            Radar evidence of subglacial liquid water on Mars

            https://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6401/490

            That’s now. Four billion years ago, such a lake could have been on the surface, perhaps as an arm or bay of a hemispheric ocean.

            There’s also evidence that liquid water still does exist briefly on the surface even now.

        • There is extensive geological evidence that liquid water was abundant on the surface of Mars in the distant past.

          • Mars gravity (38% of Earth’s) is way too low to support a much thicker atmosphere. Atmospheric pressure is made by stacking molecules on top of one another. To get an earth-like atmosphere it would have to be several times thicker.
            Looking at the Atmospheric escape graph it becomes clear why Mars atmosphere is primarily composed of CO2 and Argon. It can’t hold onto anything else.
            It’s a mistake to look at a canyon on Mars and say that on Earth liquid water carves canyons therefore Mars must have had liquid water. Or say rocks like this on Earth form in lakes and oceans, so therefor Mars must have had lakes and oceans. The Mars gravity just can’t support a thick enough atmosphere, so water on Mars exists as a solid or a gas, but not liquid.

        • Robert you are making an assertion without evidence. As David points out there’s ample geological evidence that suggest the possibility that Mars did have water as some point in the past.

          • The only way that could happen is if Mars somehow had more mass in the past, and somehow lost it. Its gravity will not support a thick enough atmosphere to permit stable liquid water. It’s just physics.

          • Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is an icy world whose surface is completely obscured by a golden hazy atmosphere. Titan is the second largest moon in our solar system. Only Jupiter’s moon Ganymede is larger, by just 2 percent. Titan is bigger than Earth’s moon, and larger than even the planet Mercury.

            This mammoth moon is the only moon in the solar system with a dense atmosphere, and it’s the only world besides Earth that has standing bodies of liquid, including rivers, lakes and seas, on its surface. Like Earth, Titan’s atmosphere is primarily nitrogen, plus a small amount of methane. It is the sole other place in the solar system known to have an earthlike cycle of liquids raining from clouds, flowing across its surface, filling lakes and seas, and evaporating back into the sky (akin to Earth’s water cycle). Titan is also thought to have a subsurface ocean of water.

            […]

            Our solar system is home to more than 150 moons, but Titan is unique in being the only moon with a thick atmosphere. At the surface of Titan, the atmospheric pressure is about 60 percent greater than on Earth—roughly the same pressure a person would feel swimming about 50 feet (15 meters) below the surface in theocean on Earth. Because Titan is less massive than Earth, its gravity doesn’t hold onto its gaseous envelope as tightly, so the atmosphere extends to an altitude 10 times higher than Earth’s—nearly 370 miles (600 kilometers) into space.

            https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/moons/saturn-moons/titan/in-depth/

          • You can keep repeating that to yourself all you want, but that ignores the scientific evidence that points to Mars having had a denser atmosphere and a magnetosphere (both of which it no longer has) in the distant past and with those, the possibility of surface water.
            It is estimated that about 66% of Mars’ atmosphere has been lost into space since it formed
            https://science.sciencemag.org/content/355/6332/1408

  5. It’s one of mankind’s biggest questions, but why do we need astronauts on Mars to answer it? Seems to me that robotic missions could do the job perfectly well at much less cost and faster.

    If there really are any surviving microbial lifeforms on Mars, how could we be sure that they would not thrive in the human body and potentially be a deadly plague? Why not evaluate these questions remotely until reasonable precautions have been taken to rule out the worst scenarios?

    • Rich,
      If you subscribe to the principles of evolution, then it is improbable that primitive organisms, even if carbon-based forms that require water, that have never before encountered life forms characteristic of Earth, and have not co-evolved, would know what to do with life from Earth. Science fiction writers have made money from stories about how humans can be infected by ‘monsters’ that have all the ‘right stuff’ to take over a body they have never previously encountered. They would probably find us less palatable than a Martian rock.

      A greater risk would be that humans would introduce microscopic organisms that will out-compete the native life and perhaps cause their extinction.

          • Actually, it’s pretty much the same. Both cases involved one organism taking over another organism’s space even though neither organism is necessarily compatible due to such divergent evolutions. They are mirror image “risks”

          • Sorry John, I don’t agree. Infection is a direct attack. Taking food or living space that another organism could use to survive is not a direct attack.

          • Diagree all you want, doesn’t make you any less wrong. They’re both variations of the same thing, an invasive organism taking over the space of others. The only difference is scale (macro vs micro).

      • I don’t find your argument at all convincing. We are each of us a biosphere with many non-human cells, perhaps more than those carrying our DNA. Probably most of those species never prey on our cells. They coexist in our gut, taking advantage of resources there. Some are symbiotic using resources we can’t process and excreting substances that are useful to us. Some are parasitic, just sapping our strength by using resources that otherwise we would use. Sure they have coevolved with us. But I see no reason why a Martian microbe that eats carbohydrates or some other chemical present in our gut could not thrive there and out-compete benign species, as in analogy to an invasive species in a macro biosphere. Perhaps they could be so efficient that we cannot eat enough to avoid starvation. Of course, they could also find the components of our cells attractive as food. Would you suggest that we could not digest a trilobite?

        • Prokaryotes outnumber our own eukaryotic cells in our bodies by about 1.4 to one, according to latest best estimate. But of course bacteria and archaea are much smaller, so most of our mass comes from our own large human cells.

  6. I am amazed people still believe LIFE simply puts atoms together into molecules via chemistry and magically formulates sophisticated codes that organizes nanite machines that synthesize complex proteins from primarily 20 or so left handed amino acids. Take off the blinders.

    • Look, I accept that perhaps magic happens, and poof life begins. Science says otherwise, but science has been wrong before. For now I go with science. It’s been shown through experimentation that lightening through the early atmosphere creates amino acids. its been shown through experimentation that the amino acids spontaneously combine to form long chain molecules. No life crawled out of the test tube, but it shows the mechanism, and they didn’t run the experiment for a couple of hundred million, or a billion, years. No one, well our ancestors were, was there, we don’t know exactly. And to be perfectly truthful it doesn’t matter. Until we invent a time machine, you believe what you want, and I’ll believe what I want.

        • No, it’s a matter of following the evidence, and saying “I don’t know” until more evidence is found.

          • Yup. Science says, “I don’t know, but would like to find out by 1) making observations of nature, 2) forming hypotheses based thereupon, testable and capable of being shown false, then 3) conducting further observations or experiments to confirm or show wrong those predictions”. IOW, the scientific method.

            The only faith involved is the belief that it’s possible to understand nature naturally, without recourse to supernatural explanations, although probably not every question will ever be solved satisfactorily via the scientific method.

      • “lightening”

        The word you keep missing is “lightning”. Your word has a different meaning than you intended.

    • No magic nor faith required. Just chemistry and physics. Anyone who wants to of course can inject supernatural intervention into the history of life on Earth. It just isn’t necessary or scientific to do so. It’s religious.

      Many once difficult issues in origin of life research have been solved. The problem with the main last steps in abiogenesis is not that they’re impossible, but that there are so many possible pathways.

      The first remaining step not yet demonstrated spontaneously in the lab are polymerization, ie making long chains of amino and nucleic acid monomers, without biological enzymes. But we’re getting close via a number of methods.

      The second is then separating replicated strands, again without biocatalysts, or with simple ones. But recent exciting work has been done in this area too.

    • Jim,

      Life doesn’t just put the atoms together. First, complex compounds of the common elements H, C, O, N, etc, self-assemble via organic chemistry, not yet biochemistry. These reactions occur with reckless abandon, without any human or divine interaction, on Earth and in outer space. This simply an observation of nature, ie a scientific fact.

      Then these complex chemical constituents of life link together to form the first bioactive macromolecules. The ways in which such bonding reactions can be or were catalyzed are many, varied and under study. Not much funding is available for OoL research, so it might take time. But more likely years or decades rather than centuries before artificial protocells are created in labs around the world.

  7. Why should we assume life began spontaneously on any planet in the solar system? Could life have started elsewhere, and arrived here, either intentionally, or by accident? Yes, this is science fiction, but I’ve not seen a better hypothesis.

    • But how? A comet is out in the void at extremely cold temperatures, not the best for life, then you have to defend through the atmosphere, generating thousands of degrees of heat, then you hit the ground at a few thousands miles per hour, once again thousands of degrees of temperature. Hard to see how anything could survive.

      • You’re assuming the temperature on the inside of meteorites achieves the same as the outside. It doesn’t; the temperature remains around 3 Kelvins.

    • The Panspermia Hypothesis.

      And the Mars Rovers have found minerals that, on Earth, only form in open water.

    • It’s more scientific conjecture than science fiction. It’s absolutely possible that life, or at least the building blocks, was/were deposited on Earth by comets.

      • Not just possible, but a fact that the complex compound constituents of life were brought to Earth on asteroid bits.

        Meteorites contain at least dozens of amino acids, including the 20 coded in DNA and 50 or more others. The come in both chiralities (handednesses) about equally, so are clearly ET. Space rocks also contain nucleobases, sugars, fatty acids, other organics and phosphate groups.

  8. “Lots of visual images of things on Mars turn out not to be what they first appeared to be….’The original ‘Face on Mars’ image taken by NASA’s Viking 1 orbiter, in grey scale, on July, 25 1976. Image shows a remnant massif located in the Cydonia region. (Image credit: NASA)’. Over the next 25 years, improved imagery revealed that the face was rather faceless…”

    So true. It happens even on Earth. For example, in South Dakota there’s a rock formation which, when the light hits it just right, appears to form the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. That last is proof against the conspiracy theorists who believe the formation to be anthropogenic. I mean, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln…andTeddy Roosevelt? Gimme a break.

  9. I’ve visited the stromatolites at Shark Bay and all I could think of was- I wonder wot put them there bubbling away? They’re protected now but you can clearly see the wagon wheel tracks across them when the visiting ancestors were loading resources onto sailing ships. Local Sandalwood cut for the Asian market predominantly but pearl shell too before plastic buttons. Not much call for the telegraph station later too so the critters have lots of tourist friends now and I guess they have Big Oil to thank for their longevity now. Chuckle.

    • Stromatolites were the main live action on the planet for 2000 million years.

      Mind bogglingly boring…especially during the early Proterozoic…apart from the occaisonal meteorite or volcano

        • GregK might be British.

          But the whole two billion years under question, from the evolution of cyanobacteria, et seq, weren’t all that boring, ie 3.5 to 1.5 Ga. The so-called “Boring Billion” amidst that stretch weren’t even a total bore.

          Some pretty exciting developments occurred during those two billion years, such as the first Snowball Earth, iron precipitating out of the oceans, the Great Oxygen Catastrophe mass extinction event, evolution of eukaryotes (our ancestors), sex and algae (ancestors of plants), plus probably fungi and animals, or their immediate unicellular ancestors.

      • The middle Proterozoic is supposed to be the boring stretch. In the Paleoproterozoic Era (2.5 to 1.6 Ga), our adolescent planet suffered such catastrophes as the Great Oxygenation Crisis and the first Snowball Earth episode. Also that era probably saw the origin of eukaryotes and sex. Not so dull after all. At the other end of the Proterozoic Eon, the Neoproterozoic Era (1000 to 541 Ma) witnessed two more Snowballs and the rise of animals.

        The Mesoproterozoic Era (1.6 to 1.0 Ga) is supposed to have occupied most of the “Boring Billion”. It lacked any event as dramatic as another global ice age extending to the equator, but it’s possible that the earliest multicellular eukaryotes, ie heterotrophic fungi and animals, but not autotrophic plants, got going in this boring era. Plus some pretty fancy fandangoing among the continents.

        • “Also that era probably saw the origin of eukaryotes and sex.”

          OMG!!! You said sex and not gender!! I’m triggered!!!

          😉

          • Would it be a microaggression to say that bacteria have six sexes rather than genders?

            Or that they are what they do, rather than how they identify?

            “Gender” is a grammatical term, not biological.

    • Author writes : “I could make a very insensitive remark, but I won’t. ”
      I wonder what he could possibly be thinking?

      • See if you can spot a pattern:

        *A man in his 60’s who was a resident of a long-term care facility in the city of Dallas and had been critically ill in an area hospital.
        *A man in his 70’s who was a resident of a long-term care facility in the city of Dallas and had been hospitalized in an area hospital.
        *A man in his 80’s who was a resident of a long-term care facility in the city of Dallas and had been hospitalized in an area hospital.
        *A woman in her 50’s who was a resident of a long-term care facility in the city of Dallas.
        *A woman in her 90’s who was a resident of a long-term care facility in the city of Dallas.
        *A man in his 50’s who was a resident of the city of Dallas and had been critically ill in an area hospital.
        *A man in his 50’s who was a resident of the city of Dallas and had been critically ill in an area hospital.
        *A man in his 30’s who was a resident of the city of Garland and had been critically ill in an area hospital.
        *A woman in her 80’s who was a resident of the city of Mesquite and had been hospitalized in an area hospital.
        *A man in his 80’s who was a resident of the city of DeSoto and had been found deceased at home.

    • America Held Hostage by ChiCom-19 will be a feature of all of my posts until the hostages are freed.

      If you don’t like it…

  10. Having already observed the NASA Mars Rover’s pictures of the bodies of Arctic Lemmings on Mars, I am less excited by the new pictures of Stromatolites on Mars. Stromatolites are a long way further down the chain of remarkable organic objects on Mars.
    As the South River Independent said, “It is all a matter of faith of one kind or another.”

  11. I have little doubt that when we finally send manned missions to Mars and study its sedimentary rocks in detail, we will find evidence of past microscopic life.”

    Here I thought you were a science skeptic. Show me the evidence. Until then it’s just a sterile rock with features defined by physical geochemistry.

  12. Dave,
    In 1975 I had the privilege of actually examining one of the microscopic slide thin sections with cyanobacteria from 3.4 billion years ago. Elso S. Barghoorn Jr., Fisher Professor of Natural History at Harvard and curator of the university’s plant fossils, visited my thesis professor in graduate school and brought along the slides show him. the image under the microscope was a tiny string are small circles embedded in a matrix. This naive graduate student should have been more impressed.

    https://www.nap.edu/read/11522/chapter/6#98

    https://www.nytimes.com/1984/01/31/obituaries/elso-barghoorn-68-found-oldest-signs-of-life-on-earth.html

  13. Dave,

    There is a block of stromatolite along the walking path from the parking lot to the “castle” observation platform at Libby Flats near the summit of the Medicine Bow Mountains (Wyoming State Highway 130). It is unlabeled and lord knows how many people pass by it without an inkling of what it is. Even better layers are found along the side roads leading to good fishing.

    Wyoming was at one time pretty good about labeling significant geology along the roads, like along Wyoming Highway 789 through the Wind River Canyon, but what interest there ever was in pointing out and explaining things to the general public seems to have faded. Interest has gone from real science to the fake stuff.

      • About 70m years ago the Big Horn mountains popped out of the ground fairly quickly in geologic terms. Over the subsequent years a great deal of sediment has washed down from those mountains depositing thousands of feet of said sediment between the Big Horns and the Powder River. Driving from the mountains to the river along I90 one can, with a little imagination, see the process in action.
        Old photos from more recent times show game/cattle paths which are now draws from a hundred or so years of weathering as do old fence posts buried feet deep in the prairie. People have a hard time visualizing actions over long periods of time.

      • My degrees are in Chemical Engineering. I’m approaching the end of my career.

        In the last few years, I’ve had occasion to spend time in WY and ID.

        I recall the profound realization that had I seen “this” as a youngster, I would have been a Geologist.

  14. Ben Franklin’s views on “coonavirus sequestering”:

    “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, Deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

  15. Dave,

    I see you are taking flak today, especially from our European friends, for the effrontery of disagreeing with the current “wisdom” on our present panic. As I wrote elsewhere today, the whole mess has the feel of the Viet Nam war — blundering into a course of action without a plan to extract oneself. And the press is playing just about the same role now as then.

    Today we see the New York City based press excoriating South Dakota for not following their self interpreted guidelines. They speak of a packing plant in Sioux Falls as the nations biggest Corona Virus hot spot.

    South Dakota death rate so far 6/885,000 = 7 per million versus NYC at 10,900/8,850,000 = 1230 per million. You would think they’d notice.

      • Deaths per million attributed to COVID-19 wouldn’t be on the list, either (states, not cities):

        NY: 828
        TX: 13

        NB: TX has a larger urban population than NY, as well as overall.

        • CA, TX and FL all have larger urban populations than NY, but many fewer deaths attributed to COVID-19.

          • Although, granted NYC is more densely populated than SF, Boston, Chicago, Philly, Miami, etc. But size and boundaries make a big difference, as does day vs. night density.

  16. For those interested in the possible origins of life on Earth, and especially of more complex life, I strongly recommend the book “The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life” by biochemist Nick Lane.

    Even if you don’t agree with his conclusions (spoiler: oceanic alkaline hydrothermal vents were key), his arguments are fascinating.

    • He has some good videos on YouTube, too, if you don’t mind joining the evil Googlian Borg.

      Lane’s a proponent of the “metabolism first” school, as opposed (if that’s the right word) to the “replication first” school, as exemplified for instnace by Harvard’s Nobel laureate Jack Szostak, also on YouTube. As are many other OoL researchers of various stripes.

      Replication first advocates are gravitating toward volcanic hot springs on land rather than alkaline hydrothermal sea vents, but both camps make compelling arguments.

      What is emerging is that the RNA/protocell and proto-Krebs Cycle/amino acid proponents have concentrated too much on their own specialities. Now some are looking at the big picture, recognizing all constituent compounds were concentrated together in late Hadean environments, so that they could have catalyzed each other. Peptides (short amino acid chains) and nucleotide oligomers (short nucleoside chains), plus fatty acids and other relevant complex organic molecules would have interacted. Thus the complicated relationships among proteins, nucleic acids, lipids, etc could stretch all the way back to the beginning, with simpler versions of their present selves.

  17. As Nick Bostrom at MIT has suggested, the discovery of past microbial life on Mars would probably be the worst news in the history of Earth. Finding life literally right next door would suggest life begins, evolves and makes the jump to multicellular forms with ease. We are then left with the implications the so called Fermi Paradox and solutions for the Great Filter problem to ponder.

    https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.technologyreview.com/2008/04/22/220999/where-are-they/amp/

    • It would just mean that life is common, intelligent life isn’t… The past few weeks of house arrest proves this to be true on Earth.

    • Such a discovery would not show that the jump to multicellular life is easy. Quite the contrary, unless multicellular organisms are found on Mars, which I very much doubt will be the case. It took billions of years on Earth.

      Going from prokaryotes to eukaryotes is so hard that it apparently happened only once on our planet. Depending upon how you define multicellular, it occurred only three times after that among eukaryotes, ie plants from unicellular algae, fungi and animals from single-celled heterotrophic opisthokonts. The last unicellular ancestors of animals, cyanoflagellates, however were already colonial and had evolved some key animal chemistry, such as the connective protein collagen.

      • I agree. I should have been more precise in more in my original post. It does seem that if the filter is behind us, it is at the origin of life itself or between prokaryotes to eukaryotes.

        • Yup. IMO, microbes are probably common in our galaxy and the universe. Unicells as complex as eukaryotes are most likely much rarer, and higher plants, fungi and animals, or their alien equivalents much rarer still. But that could add up to a lot in the universe at any one time, even if we’re alone in our own galaxy at the moment as a space-faring species, which is entirely possible.

          • Should say space-faring multicellular species, in deference to any panspermia advocates out there.

  18. So from the graphs of “COVID 19 hospitalizations” vs “CDC week” we can logically conclude that COVID 19 is a 100% effective vaccine treatment against the common flu. All flu cases have ceased.

    We may find similar amazing therapeutic uses of COVID 19 in reducing the number of deaths due to old age, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease vectors like smoking cigarettes, obesity, & bad driving skills.

    I need to get moving and patent Covid 19 for these new incredible uses. I haven’t quite worked how to deal with the side effects such as suicide, murder, boredom & subsequent loss of neuron function, as well as starvation, crime, despair, etc.

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