Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Cauliflower of Mars

Exobiologists are excitedly revisiting a 2008 photograph from the Spirit rover.

The photo shows a strange, "cauliflower-like" formation of silica in the soil of Mars. I suppose that's better than saying it looks "warty." Anyway, the silica formations strongly resemble patterns created by microbes around geysers on Earth. While everything is still needs to be examined and vetted, it may prove to be yet more evidence for microscopic life on Mars.

Maybe not especially exciting in the sci-fi sense, but it would be life in space. As in the article:

"If the logic holds, the silica cauliflower could go down in history as arguably the biggest discovery ever in astronomy. But biology is hard to prove, especially from millions of miles away, and Ruff and Farmer [of Arizona State University] aren’t claiming victory yet. All they’re saying is that maybe these enigmatic growths are mineral greetings from ancient aliens, and someone should investigate."

And there are at least a few places right here that can approximate conditions on Mars. Mostly deserts, these regions are exceedingly dry and at high elevations, making the soil susceptible to scorching levels of UV radiation similar to that of Mars. Many forms of animal life aren't adept for survival in such conditions. Microbes, on the other hand, can thrive. It stands to reason that there is at least the chance that alien life once existed on Mars in microscopic form, especially when it was wetter.

One point of the article resonated personally with me and that was the reference to Yellowstone National Park. I have seen there firsthand in the geysers and near the prismatic pools (geez, I can still smell the sulfur as I write this) the very formations referenced. Tiny things can and do live in such high temperatures and amid chemical compositions that humans would find either intolerable or downright poisonous (see "extremophiles"). All the more intriguing to me then is the fact that areas of Yellowstone might serve as analogs for conditions on early Mars. If only I had known at the time, then I might have been more interested in what I was seeing.

Scientists are of course cautioning that these kinds of structures found in soil are not always biological in origin. Many will recall that back in the mid-1990s, a meteorite fragment from Mars was thought to display signs of fossilized microbial life. It was later demonstrated that such "bacteria-shaped structures" could have formed with no life present. That's just the cold water of reality in the groin.

So I hope something gets determined soon. I know it's so difficult to do that without the possibility of direct observation, but still. Once can grow fatigued by the constant vacillation between "we've got something" and "you know, it really isn't conclusive." It's enough that I sometimes can see the cynical view that Earth is the only location in the universe with any kind of life. Why? Well, it was pretty much a fluke. I don't agree with that, no, but it's easy for me to see why someone might come to that supposition as we are still absent evidence.

In other news, a flower blooms in space.

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