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The Galaxy Is Full of Gunk

We’ll start off with a little extraterrestrial chemistry. As many will have heard, there are all sorts of hints being dropped that the sample analyzing equipment on the Mars Curiosity rover has detected something very interesting. We’ll have to wait until the first week of December to find out what it is, but my money is on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or something other complex abiotic organics.
Here’s a detailed look at the issue. The Martian surface has a pretty vigorous amount of perchlorate in it, which was not realized for a long time (and rather complicates the interpretation of some of the past experiments on it). But Curiosity’s analytical suite was designed to deal with this, and my guess is that these techniques have worked and that organic material has been detected.
I would very much bet against any sort of strong signature of life-as-we-know-it, though. For one thing, finding that in a random sand dune would seem pretty unlikely. Actually, finding good traces anywhere in the top layer of Martian rock and dust seems unlikely (as opposed to deeper underground, where I’m willing to speculate freely on the possible existence/persistence of bacteria and such). And I’m not sure the Curiosity would be well equipped to discriminate abiotic versus biotic compounds, anyway.
But organic compounds in general, absolutely. This brings up an interestingly false idea that underlies a lot of casual thinking about Mars (and space in general). Many people have this mental picture of everywhere outside Earth being sort of like the surface of our moon. It leads to a false dichotomy: here we have temperate air, liquid water, life and the byproducts of life (oil and coal, for example). Out there is all cold barren rock directly exposed to vacuum and hard radiation. We associate “space” with clean, barren, surfaces and knife-edge shadows, whereas “down here” it’s all wet and messy. Not so.
There’s plenty of irradiated rock, true, but there’s water all over the outer solar system, in huge amounts. And while what we see out there is frozen, it’s a near-certainty that there are massive oceans of the liquid stuff down under the various crusts of the larger outer-planet moons. All those alien-invasion movies, the ones with the extraterrestrials after our planet’s water, are fun but ridiculous examples of that false dichotomy in action. There’s plenty of organic chemistry, too – I’ve written before about how the colors of Jupiter’s clouds remind me of reaction byproducts, and it’s no coincidence that they do. The gas giant planets are absolutely full of organic chemicals of all varieties, and they’re getting heated, pressurized, mixed, irradiated, and zapped by huge lightning storms all the hours of their days. What isn’t in there?
Everything came that way. The solar system has plenty of hydrocarbons, plenty of small carbohydrates, and plenty of amines and other nitrogen-containing compounds in it. The carbonaceous chrondrites are physical evidence that’s fallen to Earth – some of these have clearly never been heated since their formation (since they’re full of water and volatile organics), so the universe would seem to be awash in small-molecule gorp. There’s another false dichotomy, that the materials for life are very rare and precious and only found down here on Earth. But they’re everywhere.

13 comments on “The Galaxy Is Full of Gunk”

  1. Morten G says:

    I guess it’s interesting for questions of origin of life on earth? Even if it is just gunk?

  2. newnickname says:

    “Grotzinger [said] NASA would hold a press conference about the results during the 2012 American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco from Dec 3 to 7. Because it’s so potentially earth-shaking, Grotzinger said the team remains cautious and is checking and double-checking their results.”
    Bacteria with arsenic-based DNA?
    Should that be Mars-shaking?
    Are fish on Mercury contaminated with earth?

  3. bad wolf says:

    What, no Arsenic life jokes? Too soon?

  4. Nobody says:

    My guess is that Mars is a living creature, and they just found its butthole.

  5. Christophe Verlinde says:

    Interesting chemistry? Yes. But life on Mars? No. Mars has no magnetosphere. Therefore, it is constantly bombarded with highly energetic cosmic particles that should sterilize the red planet totally.

  6. Squib says:

    The abundance of perchlorate (~0.6% of soil as of one NASA article) really seems to bode well for long term colonization. If you can get iron (O) up there, you pretty much have an unlimited supply of oxygen. In addition you get a nice supply of heat which could be harnessed as energy.
    See the link through my name…

  7. Brett says:

    Maybe they found the methane they were hoping to find. There’s a blurb from November 2 in the NYT where they said they hadn’t found traces of methane, which was a disappointment.

  8. eyesoars says:

    @6: Go down six inches from the surface, and then what don’t you have? We’ve barely scratched the surface in studying the lithotrophs we have here on Earth.

  9. Marsuvian says:

    The Phalaxy is Full of Phunk!

  10. Space geek says:

    Curious as to what this audience makes of Richard Hoover’s work:
    http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/03/richard-hoover-meteorite-bugs/
    Seeing alien bugs where there aren’t any? Terrestrial contamination due to sloppy procedures? Or is there a reasonable chance that he’s right even if he has published in what would be generously categorized as obscure journals?

  11. Anne says:

    It’s not just planets and asteroids that are full of weird and wonderful organics. As a radio astronomer I keep hearing about new compounds- the last was some sugar or other- turning up in molecular clouds or loose in interstellar space. Of course, we notice them because they have all those handy spectral lines rather than because they’re omnipresent, but they’re still out there.

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