TIME space

Odds For Life on Mars Tick Up—a Little

High-tide: layering in a Mars rock photographed by Curiosity suggests the movement of long-ago water
High-tide: layering in a Mars rock photographed by Curiosity suggests the movement of long-ago water NASA/JPL

New findings about both methane and water boost the chances for biology

September of 2013 was a bad time for those who hope there’s life on Mars. We’ve had evidence for decades that water flowed freely across the surface of the Red Planet billions of years ago, and that evidence has only gotten stronger and stronger the closer we look. Not only was there potentially life-giving water back then: Mars also had the right kind of geology to support mineral-eating microbes. And while all of that was in the distant past, the detection of methane in the Martian atmosphere by Earth-based telescopes and Mars orbiters raised hopes that bacteria might still be thriving below the surface—not unreasonable, both because all manner of Earthly critters do perfectly well below-ground and because the vast majority of methane in our own atmosphere results from biological activity. Mars’s methane might come from a similar source.

But when the Curiosity rover sniffed the Martian air directly last year, it smelled…nothing. At most, there were just three parts per billion (ppb) of methane wafting around, and possibly much less than that. “We kind of thought we’d closed that chapter,” says Christopher Webster of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, lead scientist for the instrument that did the sniffing. “A lot of people were very disappointed.”

Not any more, though. Just weeks after that dismal reading, Curiosity’s Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) picked up a whiff of methane at a concentration of 5.5 parts per billion. “It took us by surprise,” says Webster, and over the next two months, he says, “every time we looked there was methane. Indeed, the concentrations even rose, to an average of 7.2 ppb over that period, he and his colleagues report in a new paper in Science.

And then, six weeks later, the methane was gone, and hasn’t been sniffed since. “It’s a fascinating episodic increase,” Webster says.

What he and his colleagues can’t say is where the methane is coming from. Because it’s transient, they think it’s probably from a fairly local source. But whether it’s biological or geological in origin, they don’t know. It’s wise to be cautious, however, says Christopher Chyba, a professor of astrophysics and international affairs at Princeton. “Hopes for biology on Mars have had a way of disappearing once Martian chemistry has been better understood. But figuring out what’s responsible for the methane is clearly a key astrobiological objective—whatever the answer turns out to be.”

That’s not the only important Mars-related paper in Science this week, either. Another, also based on Curiosity observations, concerns Mars’s long-lost surface water, and one of the most important points is that there’s a lot more of it left than most people realize—”enough,” says Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist Paul Mahaffy, lead author of the paper, “to cover the surface to a depth of 50 meters [about 165 ft].” That doesn’t mean it’s accessible: it’s nearly all locked up in ice at the planet’s poles, but some is also entrained in the clay Curiosity dug into when it was prowling the Yellowknife Bay area of Gale Crater.

Some of that water, says Mahaffy, is tightly chemically bound to the clay and is not a big player in Mars’s modern environment. Some is not quite so locked down and has been interacting with the tenuous Martian atmosphere for the past three billion years. The hydrogen in Martian water, as in Earthly water, may contain both a single proton and a single electron, or a proton and electron plus a neutron—so-called heavy hydrogen, or deuterium. As the Martian atmosphere has thinned over the eons, the ratio of hydrogen to deuterium in the water has gradually been dropping, as the lighter version escapes more easily into space. Since the modern water is twice as rich in deuterium as the water from billions of years ago, that suggests that there was about twice as much surface water in total at the earlier time, but its hydrogen residue has vanished.

“That’s a fair bit of water,” says Mahaffy, “but it’s a lower limit. There could be much more beneath the surface today that we haven’t seen. It was a really interesting time. There were a lot of aqueous processes going on, and a lot of flowing water.”

Where there is (or was) water, there could be (or could have been) life. For Mars enthusiasts, that’s why December of 2014 is a lot better than September of 2013.

TIME space

You Can Quit Thanking Comets for Your Water

Comet 67P: Does this thing look like it could quench your thirst?
Comet 67P: Does this thing look like it could quench your thirst? ESA

A new finding from the Rosetta spacecraft upsets a longstanding theory

There was no shortage of drama when the European Space Agency’s probe Philae set down on a comet last month—the first such landing in history. First Philae bounced, then it bounced again, ending up with one of its three legs sticking up in the air, and in the shadow of a cliff that prevented its solar panels from recharging its batteries. For two days, the probe hurried to complete whatever science it could….and then everything went black.

But that hardly spelled the end of the mission. Philae’s mother ship, Rosetta, has continued to orbit comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, as it’s been doing since August, taking measurements and images of unprecedented quality. And with nearly a year of close-up observations to go, Rosetta has already come up with one result, described in a new paper in Science, that chief scientist Matt Taylor, of the European Space Agency, labeled “fantastic”: Earth’s oceans, the scientists have concluded, were evidently not created by impacts from comets rich with water ice, despite earlier evidence to the contrary. “We have to conclude instead,” said lead author Kathrin Altwegg, a planetary scientist at the University of Bern, at a press conference, “that the water came from asteroids.”

That’s a big reversal from what scientists were thinking just a few years ago. Back in 2011, the European Herschel space telescope took a hard look at Comet Hartley 2 and determined that its own cache of water, detected as vapor boiling away as Hartley approached the Sun, had a chemical composition very similar to what we see on Earth. It’s all H2O, but some of the H is a rare form of hydrogen known as deuterium, whose atoms carry not just a proton like the ordinary stuff, but a neutron as well. Water molecules made with deuterium are known as “heavy water,” and about three in a thousand water molecules on Earth’s surface are the heavy kind.

Measurements of Halley’s Comet back in the mid-80’s showed a deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio about twice that high, which argued against the idea that comets delivered water to a bone-dry Earth early in the Solar System’s history. But Halley’s came from the Oort Cloud, a spherical swarm of proto-comets orbiting at the far edges of the Solar System. Hartley 2 came from the Kuiper Belt of comets, which lies just beyond Neptune–not exactly nearby, but a whole lot closer. Given what Herschel found at Hartley 2, it appeared that Kuiper belt comets are chemically different from those that hail from the Oort cloud. If so, our water could have cometary origins after all.

The new results from Rosetta say no: Comet 67P, which also comes from the Kuiper belt, has an even greater proportion of heavy water than Halley’s and other Oort cloud objects. Even if significant numbers of comets do have Earthlike water, some clearly don’t—and even a relative few would have made Earth’s proportion of heavy water higher than it is. It’s arguable that 67P is pretty much unique among its Kuiper Belt brethren in having so much deuterium. “That’s not impossible,” said Altwegg dubiously “but….”

If comets didn’t bring us water, and if the Earth was too hot in its youth to hold on to what surface water it might have started out with, there’s still one plausible water carrier. “Today, said Taylor at the press conference, “we know asteroids have very little water, but that was probably not always the case.” The solar system was bombarded by asteroids early in its history, and if they were indeed wetter than they are now, that explains where the water in our oceans, in our seltzer bottles, in our bodies and everywhere else comes from.

Important as this new finding is, it’s likely to be only the first of many Rosetta will make as it rides along with 67P for the next year or so, watching carefully as the warming rays of the Sun bring the comet to life. “It’s a nice start to the science phase of the mission,” Taylor said.

And if you think you’ve heard the last of the Philae lander, think again. Mission controllers are still trying to pinpoint Philae’s precise location on 67P’s surface. That will allow scientists to do at least one more experiment: they’ll send radio pings from Rosetta through body of the comet to bounce off Philae and back to Rosetta. By examining how the radio beams are altered en route, they will be able to figure out whether 67P’s insides are rock-solid or held together relatively loosely.

Locating Philae would also allow scientists to calculate whether the lander might be brought back from the dead six months from now. It’s just possible, said Taylor, that a change in 67P’s orientation could bring Philae back into the sunlight, allowing its solar panels to recharge its batteries. If that happens, the prospects for extraordinary science from this already wildly successful mission will be even greater.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: November 14

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Superfast quantum computers could drastically change the future, and Microsoft might build the first one.

By Tom Simonite in MIT Technology Review

2. Water-smart urban design can reimagine life in Western cities suffering the worst drought in decades.

By Reed Karaim in JSTOR Daily

3. The new censorship: How intimidation, mass surveillance, and shrinking resources are making the press less free.

By George Packer in the New Yorker

4. A new approach to housing for families at risk that includes intensive, wrap-around services is showing early success.

By Mary Cunningham, Maeve Gearing, Michael Pergamit, Simone Zhang, Marla McDaniel, Brent Howell at the Urban Institute

5. Our best bet in the fight against Boko Haram might be sharing lessons on intelligence gathering.

By Jesse Sloman at Africa in Transition

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: October 17

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Bill Gates has some notes for Thomas Piketty: Tackle income inequality by taxing consumption, not capital.

By Bill Gates in Gates Notes

2. Thousands have died as Central African Republic slides toward civil war, but media coverage is scant. Is there an empathy gap?

By Jared Malsin in the Columbia Journalism Review

3. Europe’s apprentice model isn’t a perfect fit for U.S. manufacturing, but it could change the way we train a new generation of blue-collar workers.

By Tamar Jacoby in the New America Foundation Weekly Wonk

4. Ebola may be gruesome but it’s not the biggest threat to Africa.

By Fraser Nelson in the Guardian

5. In dry California, regulators are using an innovative pricing scheme to push conservation.

By Sarah Gardner at Marketplace

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME fun

Feel Good Friday: 14 Fun Photos to Start Your Weekend

From presidential selfies to human towers, here's a handful of photos to get your weekend started right

TIME

A Lot of Earth’s Water Is Actually Older Than the Sun

The Crew Of Apollo 17 Took This Photograph Of Earth In December 1972 While The Spacecraf
NASA/Getty Images

That's more than 4.5 billion years old

Up to about half of the water on our planet is older than the sun, according to a paper published on Thursday in the journal Science.

While you next take a sip, ponder this, too: the fact that Earth’s water is so old bodes well for our hunt for wet environments — and, for life — elsewhere in the universe.

Life on Earth owes everything to the presence of liquid water here, but, even so, scientists don’t have definitive answers for how or when the water got here — or, for that matter, when the water itself was formed.

The new research seeks to answer that last question: Was our water made before the sun existed, brewed in the same cloud of dust from which the sun would form? Or did water come later, forming as the Earth also formed?

As the Washington Post explains, during the sun’s birth a band of unused space dust gathered like skirt hems around it. Such material, called the protoplanetary disk, would go on to form the solar system’s planets.

Scientists know that water accompanied the sun’s birth but wondered if it might have been destroyed in the process of the sun’s formation, leaving Earth to go it alone in stirring up its own water.

To find out if the water from that dust cloud made it to Earth, researchers measured the ratio of deuterium, or heavy hydrogen to hydrogen. The findings show that heavy hydrogen levels on Earth are higher than they would have been in the protoplanetary disk. That means that some of our water must predate the sun, when heavy hydrogen was in abundance.

So, if water can survive a star’s birthing process, and if other solar systems in the universe formed much like ours did, that means that water might be a common ingredient in the making of other planets far from our own.

“By identifying the ancient heritage of Earth’s water, we can see that the way in which our solar system was formed will not be unique, and that exoplanets will form in environments with abundant water,” said Tim Harries, a professor at the University of Exeter’s Physics and Astronomy Department, in England, and an author of the paper, in a statement.

“Consequently,” he said, “it raises the possibility that some exoplanets could house the right conditions, and water resources, for life to evolve.”

Last spring, scientists announced that there could be up to 11 billion exoplanets — planets outside or solar system — that are at just the right distance from their stars to have liquid water, and, perhaps, life as well.

TIME weather

See How Flash Floods Devastated Southwestern States

In a year of record drought, severe flooding submerged parts of Arizona and Nevada on Monday. Roads were closed, homes flooded, and at least one person was killed in the deluge

TIME Iraq

Iraq’s Battleground Dams Are Key to Saving the Country from ISIS

Tribal fighters seen during a battle with ISIS militants, in Haditha, Iraq, Aug. 25, 2014.
Tribal fighters seen during a battle with ISIS militants, in Haditha, Iraq, Aug. 25, 2014. Osama Al-Dulaimi—Reuters

U.S. airstrikes prevent ISIS from seizing control of Iraq's water supply—but now the Kurds control a major dam, complicating Iraqi politics

When militants in Iraq made their recent assault on Haditha Dam, it pushed the U.S. to strike in this part of western Iraq for the first time since August. The Iraqi national army and allied Shi’ite militia have been battling the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) for months in Anbar province, but until yesterday, Washington had shied away.

“The potential loss of control of the dam or a catastrophic failure of the dam—and the flooding that might result— would have threatened U.S. personnel and facilities in and around Baghdad, as well as thousands of Iraqi citizens,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said in statement Sunday, justifying strikes which seem to fall just outside of the American mission’s mandate.

The facility, wedged in the Euphrates River, is the country’s second-largest dam, and along with its big brother the Mosul Dam, on the Tigris River, it has been a strategic target of the expansionist Sunni militants. Over 95 percent of Iraq’s water comes from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, making it easy for anyone controlling those dams to put a stranglehold on the country’s water.

“If these dams—Mosul and Haditha— are outside of the control of the Iraqi state, it would be a national catastrophe,” says Shirouk al-Abayachi, a member of the Iraqi parliament and previously an adviser to the Ministry of Water Resources. “This is the ultimate danger.”

Given that ISIS’s stated goal is the end of the Iraqi state, to be replaced by a new, flourishing Islamic Caliphate, it’s no surprise that the terrorist group has focused on the country’s dams. The power to dry-out Baghdad and the Shi’ite farmlands south of the capital—along with the ability to provide water and the electricity produced by these facilities to their new subjects—could put ISIS in the driver’s seat.

“Military decision makers should take into consideration that these dams are the most important strategic locations in the country,” says al-Abayachi. “They should be very well protected because they affected everything—economy, agriculture, basic human needs and security.”

For all the talk that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was primarily about oil, even in the early days of the offensive, significant military resources were put into controlling water and electricity facilities. In fact, this weekend wasn’t the first time U.S. forces were employed to keep the Haditha Dam out of unwanted hands. In June 2003, the U.S. carried out air strikes near Haditha to allow collation forces to seize the facility from Saddam Hussein’s army. But while al-Qaeda—which essentially gave birth to ISIS—and other militant groups repeatedly targeted infrastructure in Iraq during the chaotic years that followed the invasion, none dared to attempt ISIS’s blatant grab for control of these resources.

From January to April this year ISIS used its control of the Fallujah Dam to flood adjacent lands, and cut water to south and central Iraq. But the impact was nothing compared to what the militants would be able to do with control of the Mosul or Haditha Dams.

However, ISIS may not be they only group that wants strategic control over the taps in Iraq. In February, as Baghdad halted transfer payments to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil, the Kurds shut off the water to Iraqi farmers from Kurdish-controlled dams.

“Let them endure a water shortage; that’s their problem,” Akram Ahmad Rasul, general director of dams and water storage in the KRG told the local news agency Rudaw of the farmers outside the Kurdish region.

Since then the stakes have been raised. Kurdish peshmerga fighters led the ground offensive to retake the Mosul Dam from ISIS, as Iraqi national forces had already proved they were incapable of holding the position. Now the Kurds control the dam, and amid the chaos in recent months, they have intensified their calls for complete independence from Baghdad. “If the Kurds keep control of the Mosul Dam…they will have about 80 percent of Iraq’s water, which is tremendous leverage for them,” says John Schnittker, who served as a U.S. advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture. “They will essentially have a vital lock on the water supply for central and southern Iraq. It just leaves the government of Iraq in a very weakened position in negotiating with the Kurds.”

While the U.S. strikes seem to be the only way to keep these facilities out of the hands of ISIS militants, Schnittker said the attacks may have effects not necessarily intended by Washington. “The Kurds are in a really strong position to leverage Baghdad,” says Schnittker. “And my real concern is that the U.S. would be kind of complicit in a Kurdish land and water grab.”

TIME Environment

What We Can Learn From Australia and Turning Off the Tap

500627073
Andrew Bain—Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images

The country's long drought taught people that they need to mimic nature

As an Australian, I have been taught from birth the value of water. In school, history lessons always included details of early explorers who died of thirst, such as Robert O’ Hara Burke and William John Wills’ disastrous expedition between the Gulf of Carpenteria and Melbourne in 1861. Today, the threat remains; it’s not uncommon for people to die from lack of water when their cars break down in the Outback.

And while we’re used to water scarcity in Australia, we do have particular periods of national drought, the latest stretching from 1997 to 2010. It has taught all of us that water is priceless, because we cannot live without it. It’s also brought a greater understanding in Australia’s towns and cities of what it is like to live in the bush. A drought so long and severe required all Australians to bear the burden.

Schools and community groups got deeply involved in Waterwatch, a national volunteer water quality monitoring and water education program. Farmers installed observation bores on their property and regularly measured water table levels and groundwater quality, to guard against salinity that can spoil water and land in droughts. If you drove into a country town during the drought, the first thing you saw was a large sign stating the level of water restrictions.

In the cities, people stopped washing cars, then stopped watering lawns, and then stopped watering gardens. Many of us had a bucket between our legs in the shower, but that was voluntary! The country has expanded water recycling, with many places aiming to recycle 100 percent of their waste water. We also invested heavily in desalination (though now, because the drought has dissipated, much of the expensive, energy-consuming equipment is no longer needed). The Australian nation has had to learn together to learn to turn the tap off and treat fresh water as a valuable resource.

Australians love water and we mostly live by the sea, but getting access to fresh water is getting more dangerous for those in the northern parts of Australia. Recently a 15-foot-long crocodile plucked a bloke out of his boat in front of his family in a national park. The croc was shot (a rare event, since crocs have been protected from shooting since 1972) and the man’s body recovered. The culprit was as much the dry conditions as the croc. Crocs always guard their piece of waterway, and they are always growing bigger. As it gets drier, the big crocs and humans have less water to use, and are drawn closer together.

As an agricultural consultant on a recent trip to Northern Queensland, which is still in drought, I was introduced to a new term: “sell’em or smell’em,” meaning that that if you do not sell your cattle livestock, you will smell them dead. There was just not enough water to keep them alive.

But droughts are not new to Australia and historically our landscapes have been able to function and flourish. The question is how a modern society can cope with the droughts, which affect everyone in our nation. Perhaps we can learn from Peter Andrews, a racehorse breeder and grazier from New South Wales, who wrote an excellent book called Back from the Brink. The book explains how the Australian landscape was distinguished by its ability to hold fresh water underground in huge floodplains. These plains released water over time, but also accommodated floodwaters by absorbing them into underground aquifers.

This natural process stored excess water and then released it in dry times, feeding streams at their highest point. Reed beds acted like biological safety values. They held water back and the water would rise. The rising floodwater and floating debris increases leverage on the top of the reeds. Then they would flatten like a protective blanket, protecting what was beneath them.

This process is no more as livestock and machinery have drained the floodplains of fresh water, removed the reed beds and in many cases allowed salt to move down into the lower parts of the landscape. The drought has again taught us that we need to mimic nature and learn to read the landscape in order to start to repair it.

For those in drought, my simple message is to remember that a drought normally ends with some form of flood, which can do more damage. As there is little vegetation to slow down the flow of water and precious topsoil is washed away, too much water ends up degrading farmland and undermining bridge foundations. You can’t erase a drought all at once. So be prepared.

Gwyn Jones is an agricultural consultant in Mudgeeraba, Queensland, Australia. This was written for Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Books

Why You Need to Hit the Beach Right. This. Second.

506064383
4kodiak—Getty Images

There's some serious science behind water's ability to reduce stress, inspire creativity and promote empathy. How's that for a day in the sand?

What is it about water that pulls us, soothes us, inspires us and connects us?

During the decade I spent pursuing that simple question for my book Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do, I interviewed and met people around the world with a wide variety of relationships to water: surfers, swimmers, psychologists, artists, ocean managers, fishers, veterans, captains, floaters, neuroscientists, explorers, divers, inventors, educators, poets—and people with the surname Cousteau.

Being by the water can pull the stress from us, inspire creativity and draw us closer to those we love. Research shows that feeling of awe and wonder we get by the sea can also promote compassion and empathy.

Turns out there’s some serious science behind the Beach Boys’ famous lyric, “Catch a wave, and your sittin’ on top of the world.”

So dive in and rank how blue your mind is—or how beach deprived you might be this summer—with this quiz.

Wallace J. Nichols is the author of Blue Mind and a Research Associate at the California Academy of Sciences. He has spent his life getting near, in, on, or under waters all over the world. He also loves sea turtles.

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