Tech

Scientists finally find life on Mars (or actually they haven’t)

Josie Ford

Space oddity

In terms of big science news, this is up there with the biggest: there is life on Mars!

The internet was abuzz last week when news emerged that mushrooms had been spotted on the Red Planet. The fungal life forms had been seen in photos taken by NASA rovers nearly two decades ago, and somehow overlooked by the space agency for all these years.

The paper making this claim, published online by the journal Advances in Microbiology, asserted that the photos showed spherical “mushroom-like” formations, which even expanded in diameter over sequential photos, suggesting biological growth. The authors said that NASA had ignored other evidence of life on Mars in the past due to peer pressure.

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The paper has had a mixed reception, it is fair to say. While some online news sites lapped it up, others were more sceptical. To get to the bottom of things, Feedback tried to consult New Scientist‘s space correspondent, but she seemed reticent, claiming to be busy working on “real stories”.

When finally pinned down, our reporter said that NASA had already investigated the strange formations, and concluded they were spherical, iron-based rocks half buried in sand, nicknamed blueberries. The most likely explanation for their increase in size was that wind had blown away some of the sand.

“These are known phenomena,” she sighed. “If there were life on Mars, every scientist who studies Mars would be out of their mind with joy – they would not try to keep it secret.”

China crisis

One of those so-called “real stories” taking up the time of our space correspondent was no doubt the fate of a China National Space Administration (CNSA) Long March 5B rocket, which took off last month to deliver a living quarters module for the nation’s upcoming space station.

What goes up must come down, however, and last week the remains of the rocket performed an “uncontrolled
re-entry” – which, in layperson’s terms, means simply letting it fall back to Earth as gravity sees fit, and hoping it doesn’t hit anything.

Thankfully, that’s exactly what happened. The rocket remnants splash-landed in the Indian Ocean last Sunday – unlike last year, when debris from a previous CNSA rocket crashed onto two villages in the Ivory Coast.

On that occasion, no one was hurt, but some buildings didn’t come out of the encounter so well. China plans another 10 rocket launches to complete its space station, so perhaps we should still keep our fingers crossed – and our building insurance up to date.

Politicians tried to express their views about such a que sera sera approach to rocket safety without causing a diplomatic incident. “For those of us who operate in the space domain, there’s a requirement, or should be a requirement to operate in a safe and thoughtful mode,” US defense secretary Lloyd Austin was quoted as saying in The Guardian.

But eagle-eyed New Scientist reader Marc Smith-Evans in Nueva Vizcaya, the Philippines, spotted something more notable in that same article.

It predicted that the debris would land “between Saturday and Sunday”, which left Marc scratching his head about how such a time period could be compatible with our current understanding of science. He concludes: “This isn’t time travel but something far more impressive.”

Birdbrained

Perhaps China’s space agency shouldn’t be judged too harshly for failing to control where its rocket debris lands, as the field is famously difficult. We don’t have the saying “it’s not rocket science” for nothing. For instance, when Skylab, the first US space station, came down from orbit in 1979, NASA failed in its attempt to steer it into the ocean and ended up smearing it across Western Australia.

Again, no one was hurt. But a municipality called the Shire of Esperance on Australia’s south coast, which copped some of the debris, issued NASA with a AUS $400 fine for littering. This went unpaid until 2009, when a Californian radio DJ raised the funds from listeners as a publicity stunt.

In a not-at-all tenuous link, another challenge of a similar difficulty to controlling de-orbiting rocketry is the question of how to curb numbers of feral pigeons in town centres. Don’t scoff: pigeons can cake buildings in guano and spread diseases, but many high-tech deterrents don’t actually work and culls tend to trigger outrage among animal lovers.

Now, councillors in Hungerford, a market town in the south of England, have had a different idea: humanely trapping the birds and releasing them more than 400 kilometres away, at the seaside town of Whitby in North Yorkshire.

What the plan’s originator has against Whitby is unclear. And how would the town’s residents feel about it, wonders reader Liz Bell. Would they retaliate by dispatching their own unwanted pigeons to Hungerford, or might the original pigeons take matters into their own wings and return? They are known for their homing abilities, after all.

But Hungerford deputy mayor Keith Knight told the Newbury Weekly News that the town had run out of other options. “We’ve tried alternatives without making progress,” he said. “We’re going round in circles.” Rather like the pigeons might.

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