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Is everyone at NASA working to find out if there is life on Mars, or are some working to hide it? Posted 3/30/2015.

       On December 17, 2014 we wrote about a new report that methane spikes have been found by MSL at Gale Crater. See the 52-minute press conference at The methane and other organic molecules found might be due to bacterial life on Mars now. Soon after that National Geographic published Mars Up Close, Inside the Curiosity Mission by Marc Kaufman with a foreword by Elon Musk, Founder and CEO of SpaceX.  Chapter 8 is entitled In Search of Organics. This article will sum up its findings, mixing in elements of the above new conference and other related information.
       A key part of the Curiosity Rover is the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM). It has primary tasking to find organic compounds, carbon-based molecules (usually with hydrogen) that are essential to life on Earth. While all life contains organic chemicals, not all organic chemicals are formed by living organisms. Among organic chemicals that are important to life are amino acids which are building blocks of proteins and lipids (fats) that make up cell walls. If we find them on Mars they could have arisen there ot they might have been delivered there by meteorites. It is estimated that 30,000 tons of cosmic dust with organics now falls on Earth each year. However, back in the "late heavy bombardment period" about 4 billion years ago the rate was over 1,000 times higher for Earth and Mars. Thus the concern is about what happened to organics on Mars.

Figure 1 - Chlorobenzene was found at several sites in Gale Crate with the most significant amount at a site named Cumberland.

On November 28, 2012 I wrote about an initial false detection of methane by SAM. As I wrote then, there were two surprises in reference to the Martian atmosphere as initially measured by the MSL Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM).  The first cause for question was that, “During initial check out tests of SAM, scientists discovered the amount of air from earth’s atmosphere remaining in the instrument after launch was more than expected.” Here the question is, “Why?” It is important to listen to  the Principal Investigator for SAM at Goddard: Paul Mahaffy at 42:46 into this video. The full segment in question at the JPL press conference is between 41:53 and 43:50. In discussing why they had to shut down SAM for a while, a transcript of the answer (with a few words undecipherable shown in red font) is roughly as follows:

REPORTER: Be more specific about what caused SAM to quit and take up Mars gas.

ANSWER BY DR. PAUL MAHAFFY: It turns out we had these miniature pumps. We call them wide range pumps but they’re really turbo-molecular pumps on top of the molecular dray stage. The really nice thing about these pumps is they exhaust naturally right at Mars pressure, 10 millibar, 7 millibar. Um, and it turns out there is a very slow leak, uh, into the Tunable Laser Spectrometer and so there was just a little bit of a residual atmosphere in the harriot cell which is the cell where the light bounces back and forth to get a long path length for the methane, the carbon dioxide and the water measurements and so the tens of millibars that we had in there, I think we had 51 millibar and we had assumed that the pump would be fine evacuating that, we routinely evacuate Mars ambient out of the  cell but it was just high enough the current sensor on the pump said, nah this is a little bit too high I‘m gonna turn myself off and it did but SAM continued merrily along its measuring path assuming that we had not turned off and so we measured that gas with both the mass spectrometer and the Tunable Laser Spectrometer. It really led to some excitement. The TLS (Tunable Laser Spectrometer) Team, Chris and Greg, their eyes were wide open. They saw all this methane, and it turns out it's terrestrial methane, but it was kind of a good test….

       The reason he thought it was a good test were given in the article:“As a test of the instrument, the results are beautiful confirmation of the sensitivities for identifying the gases present,” says Mahaffy...

PERCHLORATES AND THE SEARCH FOR ORGANIC CHEMICALS ON MARS. When Phoenix touches down in the Martian Arctic it found not just water ice, but also perchlorates. Perchlorates are also found in some high deserts on Earth. At Phoenix analyses on three samples, two from the surface and one from depth of 5 cm, revealed a slightly alkaline soil and low levels of salts typically found on Earth. Unexpected though was the presence of ~ 0.6% by weight perchlorate (ClO4), most likely as a Ca(ClO4)2 phase. The salts formed from perchlorates discovered at the Phoenix landing site act as "anti-freeze" and will substantially lower the freezing point of water. Based on the temperature and pressure conditions on present-day Mars at the Phoenix lander site, conditions would allow a perchlorate salt solution to be stable in liquid form for a few hours each day during the summer.[34] In 2014 it was shown that perchlorate and chlorate can be produced from chloride minerals under Martian conditions. [37] Perchlorates are found widespread across the Martian surface. The problem is that they modify organics when heated above 300°C (572°F). The SAM oven, like that on the Viking landers before it, heat sample to that level or higher, thus destroying or drastically altering organics. When Chris McKay and Rafael Navarro-Gonzalez (SAM team members) heated common organic compounds with a perchlorate, the only organics found afterward were dichloromethane and chloromethane, which were the organics found by Viking and Curiosity. But wait, didn't the Vikings find no organics? Isn't that why much of our Mars program came to a halt?

       Indeed the Vikings had found dichloromethane and chloromethane, and they are organic chemicals. But, MARS UP CLOSE states that these chemicals were at that time ruled "contaminants from Earth, leftovers from the effort to scrub the Viking lander(s) clean, or perhaps from the fuel used during landing."  However, finding organic chemistry is not synonomous with finding life.

AN UNINVITED GUEST. Some organic material used in "wet chemistry" section of SAM had apparently leaked out of its container. Wet chemistry is used if it looks like complex organics - which would be destroyed in ovens - might be found. Curiosity brought up some cups to hold for such testing. The sealed cups hold N-methyl-N-tert-butyldimethylsylil-triflouroacetamide, or MTBSTFA (see Figure 2, ignore the issue of which goes first: N-methyl or N-tert).

Figure 2 - N-methyl-N-tert-butyldimethylsylil-triflouroacetamide, or MTBSTFA.

MTBSTFA is used to react with possibly complex Martian organics and form gasses at low temperatures that SAM can identify. However if MTBSTFA is put directly into an oven rather than into low temperature cups, it will look like an organic compound after heating. The SAM team found the Earthly contaminant MTBSTFA had mixed with a Martian sample, however Paul Mahaffy still felt that it remained possible that some of the chloromethane and dichloromethane were a by-product of heating Martian organics in the presence of perchlorates rather than contaminating MTBSTFA, although he was not certain about whether the source of both the carbon and chlorine was coming from Mars. Of particular note, however, is the following remark:

"The way I explained it to some students recently was like this. We're looking at the burned ashes of a house and trying to figure out what it was like living there before the fire. NOt a great way of doing business." (Chris McKay)

        This accident was so serious that I believe it requires a full investigation to find out exactly how it occurred, and who (if anyone) is responsible for. Sabotage should not be initially ruled out.      

       The first sample was taken from an area known as Rocknest on MSL Sol 93. Figure 3 shows the area where the sample was taken, and the relative humidity in that area and other areas that MSL traversed over its first 313 sols. On Sol 93 there was no original pressure data published, but JPL latter posted pressure of 819 Pa (8.19 mbar) with a high of -1°C and a low of -72°C (see our weather records here). Relative humidity varied in the Rocknest area from about 58% down to about 9%. It was supposedly about 12% when the first sample was retrieved. The presence of perchlorates is important in understanding whether or not water underground remained liquid long enough each day to allow bacteria to live. Perchlorates can lower the freezing point of brine down to -58°F (-50°F). They can also be used as food sources for some bacteria and other microbes on Earth. Thus although perchlorates are often harmful to life on Earth, and although their presence on Mars vastly complicates the process of finding organic chemicals and life there, they may actually help life survive on Mars.

Figure 3 below shows the path traversed by MSL until sol 302, with emphasis on variation in relative humidity. It also shows two of the areas where organic chemicals were found - Rocknest and John Klein.

HOPE ARISES AGAIN. At Goddard Space Flight Center, Daniel Glavin and his colleagues reexamined the data they were getting from Rocknest and two later sites named John Klein and Cumberland. See Figure 3 for Rocknest and John Klein. They found concentration of organics not readily explained by MTBSTFA and effects of perchlorates. They also found signatures of chlorinated methanes and a chlorinated benzene (see Figures 1 and 4). On Sol 409 Jennifer Eigenbrode ran a control test that showed SAM had likely detected complex organic molecules in an earlier sample. The molecules came from Mars rather than from contamination in the instrument.

Figure 4 - Organic chemicals found at Gale Crater.


Figure 5 - Times associated with methane detection at Gale Crater and announcements about it.

GOOD GUYS VS. BAD GUYS. This section represents the opinion of Barry S. Roffman. Comments about it should be addressed to

       The primary hero in the search for life on Mars is Gilbert Levin, PhD. He is the principle investigator in the Viking mission Labeled Release (LR) experiment. The experiment involves the release of radioactive gas from (carbon-14) radio-labeled compounds in the event they were metabolized by microorganisms in the Martian soil. The LR squirted a drop of carefully designed radioactive food onto a tiny cup of Martian soil and monitored the air above the soil to detect radioactive gas that any microorganisms present might breathe out. Levin and his co-workers, notably Dr. Patricia Ann Straat, then spent the next decade developing the experiment and instrument, and in analyzing the results obtained from its successful operation on Mars. At both Viking 1 and Viking 2 landing sites, about 4,000 miles apart, the LR returned evidence of living microorganisms. These results were initially discounted by NASA due to a lack of detection of organic molecules at the time. However, we now know that the oven set up to analyze soil samples heated the soil too much and that at such temperatures the perchlorates would destroy complex organic molecules associated with life. In 1997, after 21 years of study of the Mars LR results, of new information scientists obtained about environmental conditions on Mars, and of the extreme environments in which life was found on Earth, Dr. Levin published his conclusion that the LR had, indeed, discovered living microorganisms on the Red Planet. He offers the following list of scientists who either fully support his conclusions, or who think there may be life on Mars now. Of interest is that the retired Viking manager agrees with him. I would put the first list of scientists in with the "good guys."  But the NASA backers and e-mails of them don't show up until the second list of wiggle room folks.


Life on Mars was detected by the Viking LR experiment

Note that none in this first list have active NASA e-mail addresses.


Giorgio Bianciardi

Universita` di Siena,


Francisco Carrapico

Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal


Mario Crocco

Ministry of Health, Buenos Aries, Argentine Republic


Barry DiGregorio

University of Buckingham, United Kingdom


Richard B. Hoover

Athens State University, Athens, AL (NASA ret.)


Joop M. Houtkooper

Justus-Liebig-Universita¨t Gießen, Germany


Gilbert Levin

Arizona State University, Tempe;

LR Experimenter


Ron Levin

Lockheed-Martin, Goodyear, AZ

Robert Lodder

University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY


Joseph Miller

American University of the Caribbean

School of Medicine


John Newcomb

NASA, Viking Manager (ret.)


Elena Pikuta

Athens State University, Athens, AL


Patricia A. Straat

NIH (ret.); LR Co-Experimenter


Hans Van Dongen

Washington State University, Spokane, WA

Chandra Wickramasinghe

University of Buckingham, United Kingdom



Life on Mars may have been detected by the Viking LR experiment

Note the three NASA members, including Chris McKay, discussed earlier.


Timothy Barker

Wheaton College, Norton, MA


Steven Benner

University of Florida, Gainesville


Paul Davies

Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ


Sergio Fonti

Universita` del Salento, Italy


Robert Hazen

Carnegie Institution, Washington, DC


Chris McKay

NASA Ames Research Center

Richard Meserve

Carnegie Institution, Washington, DC


Michael Mumma

Goddard Space Flight Center


Vincenzo Orofino

Universita` del Salento, Italy


John Rummel

East Carolina University, Greenville, NC


Dirk Schulze-Makuch

Washington State University, Pullman, WA


Andrew Steele

Carnegie Institution, Washington, DC


Carol Stoker

NASA Ames Research Center


Mike Storrie-Lombardi

Kinohi Institute, Pasadena, CA


Henry Sun

Desert Research Institute, Reno, NV


       In addition to James Fletcher, there are a small (but critical) number of key people (currently unidentied) who may have had political reason to want to sabotage specific experiments. We are interested in the above mentioned incident spilling of N-methyl-N-tert-butyldimethylsylil-triflouroacetamide, or MTBSTFA from what was supposed to be a sealed cup on the MSL.   We discuss how screwed up the Vaisala pressure transducer was and how NASA used International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) as an excuse to keep its designer (Kenrik Kahanpää) from having critical info needed  to make it right. See slides 24, 25 and 26 at We suspect that on Pathfinder the pressure sensor that was supposed to fly was swapped out for one that few people knew about. The CAD to support this suspicion is found in Section 2.2 of our report. Of course, if Dr. Fletcher played a role in sabotaging Viking 1 and 2 color images, he had to be following orders from above. By 1976 Nixon was out of office and Gerald Ford was in, but we don't yet have anything directly linking him to an improper command.



Figure 6 - Possible "crime scene" at Viking 1 landing site. NASA director James Fletcher ordered manual changes to color monitors that wiped out blue sky and green on rocks.