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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 2004 > Feb > Feb 12

Reality Check: Spheres On Mars Not Fossils

From: Frank Warren <frank-warren.nul>
Date: Thu, 12 Feb 2004 07:32:15 -0800
Fwd Date: Thu, 12 Feb 2004 14:24:26 -0500
Subject: Reality Check: Spheres On Mars Not Fossils

Source: Yahoo News


Reality Check: Spheres on Mars Not Fossils


Wed Feb 11,10:53 AM ET

Mars has a long history of being misinterpreted, from conjurings
of apparent canals that signaled an alien civilization to the
infamous NASA (news - web sites) photo of a supposed giant face.
Now a close-up picture of tiny spheres embedded in a Martian
rock has some people seeing fossilized life.

This alternate, perhaps hopeful view of a picture taken by
NASA's Opportunity Rover and released Monday has been expressed
in e-mail messages to reporters and geologists. Mission
scientists anticipated it and were ready yesterday with a

While the spherules, as the small structures are called, are
incredibly interesting, they are not that incredible, according
to Steven Squyres, principal investigator for the Mars
Exploration Rover (MER) project from Cornell University.

"There simply is no reason to promote a biological origin for
these [spherules] when there are so many other, far more
probable ways of making them," Squyres told SPACE.com.

Squyres quoted his former teacher and friend, the late Carl
Sagan, who popularized the phrase, "Extraordinary claims require
extraordinary evidence."

"To claim a finding of fossils on Mars would certainly be
extraordinary," Squyres said, "yet there are many different and
very ordinary ways in which Nature makes spherical objects of
this size by non-biological processes."

Water, maybe

The rover mission is designed to learn whether Mars was once
warmer and wetter - as most scientists believe - a place that
might have supported some form of very simple, microbial life.
The spherules, after further investigation, may point in that
direction. But water does not equal life, it only sets the

Asked if, prior to getting these first close-up images of a Mars
rock, he had harbored any hope of finding fossilized life on
Mars, Squyres replied: "Never."

"Even on Earth, which has been a warm and life-friendly planet
for nearly all of its history, macroscopic fossils [the sort
that would show up in a rover image] don't turn up in any real
abundance in the geologic record until about 600 million years
ago - less than 15 percent of the planet's history," Squyres
explained. "To expect that life could have evolved to that level
of complexity in what might have to be less time, on what has
surely been a more hostile planet, would be asking far too

The spherules are a few millimeters in diameter - much bigger
than a typical bacterium, which would be the sort of thing
scientists would expect to find on the red planet if there is
any life there.

The spheres are almost surely of a different composition than
the rock in which they are embedded, a preliminary analysis
showed. Scientists hope to determine what they are made of in
coming days with tests by multiple rover instruments. The tiny
beads are thought to have formed in one of three ways:

* Ash from a volcanic eruption was suspended in the air, stuck
together, and fell from the sky.

* Molten rock from a volcano or a meteor impact froze in mid-air
into glass beads.

* Fluid, possibly water, carried dissolved minerals through a
rock and "precipitated" grains that grew into spheres, through a
process called "concretion."

The last possibility most excites geologists, but more study is
needed to determine which of the hypotheses is correct.

Strange colors

In one strangely colored image of Stone Mountain, the smallish
rock with the outsized name in which the spherules are embedded,
other spherules are seen scattered about in the surrounding

The radical color enhancement - done purposely to bring out
differences in composition between the rock's primary makeup and
that of the spheres - gives the spheres an eerie, perhaps even
lifelike appearance. But the colors are not real. In a true-
color image of the same scene, the spheres are unremarkable.

Stone Mountain is part of a modest outcropping roughly the
height of a single stair step. There is a depressed region at
its base - a shallow crater - and a higher plateau above. It is
not known where the scattered spherules came from.

"It's impossible to know the pedigree of the ones that we see in
the soil," Squyres said. "Some of them certainly must have
weathered out of the outcrop, but many of them may be from
elsewhere, including materials above the outcrop and outside the
crater that we haven't been to yet."

Squyres had expected to be asked about whether the spherules
were fossils. So he had asked a colleague, Andrew Knoll of
Harvard University, to draft a more lengthy explanation for
their non-biological origin.

Not biology

"Some small organisms [on Earth] are spheroidal, but not all
small spheroidal structures are organisms," Knoll writes.
Extraterrestrial structures or chemical signatures can be
accepted as biological "only if we can rule out formation by
physical processes - the idea being that while life might vary
from planet to planet, physics and chemistry should not."

Knoll continues: "We know that physical processes make
structures like those seen in the images," adding that "we do
not know of any cells on Earth" that would form fossils that
look, in detail, like the structures seen in the Opportunity

Spherical fossils this big - a few millimeters in diameter
instead of microscopic - are relatively rare," Knoll explains.
And cells do not fossilize as whole, solid structures.

Responding to a specific suggestion that the rover had found
small creatures called diatoms, Knoll said: "This is
impossible," citing several observed characteristics of the
spherules that don't match up.

The spherules are solid or mostly solid, Knoll writes, with
holes interpreted to be small cavities known to geologists as
vesicles. "This is not a likely consequence of biology."

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