The Best and Worst of Mars’ Coverage

The Best and Worst of Mars’ Coverage

Many readers of Astrobiology Magazine have generously provided comments and feedback during the extended Mars mission, much of it related to how the media has portrayed the highs and lows of daily happenings on Mars. The editors have compiled these comments into a single top ten list of complaints and qualms with examples of how future astrobiology missions might attempt to address them.

Oblique view of crater ring, sometimes whimsically called the "Happy Face" crater.

Two givens have been repeated as among the best parts of Mars’ coverage. First the internet has provided the most comprehensive and current insight ever into a lengthy space expedition. Secondly, daily sharing of unedited images from the twin rovers has allowed public participation that rivals what the scientists themselves have witnessed.

Since January, NASA’s Mars exploration program has drawn more than 6.5 billion hits on the space agency’s Web portal–the largest scientific event ever on the internet. As JPL mission engineer, Rob Manning, explained on the night when the first rover landed successfully, "[Mars] is not that far away. It is not cheap. We don’t visit too often. But when you see these pictures, it will be familiar."

Top Ten List, The Media Flames

1) Too much emphasis on ‘firsts’
2) Engineering milestones overshadow science questions
3) Conspiracies to hide fossil findings
4) Too little coverage after the initial splash of landing stories
5) The language of geology is dry, even when talking about a martian ocean
6) Too little international coverage
7) Naming of rocks and landmarks is more confusing than helpful
8) No accounting of what could have gone wrong, but didn’t
9) Didn’t we already know there was water on Mars?
10) Why no biological experiments?

Airbag descent towards the surface of Mars
Credit: Maas/
NASA/JPL/Cornell University

Doing science live in public has long been a requirement of space explorers. But before this week’s news conference, a six-member team of scientists did their more traditional peer-review to substantiate any claims prior to the release of findings, much akin to the cycle of journal publication.

The challenge can be summarized: How to tell a complex scientific story as current history? As principal investigator Steve Squyres described the team’s public profile "We’re letting the science hang out there for everyone to see. We risk letting people think we’re confused, but hey, science is really like that. It’s exciting and we don’t have all the answers. That’s why we do it."

1) Too much emphasis on ‘firsts’

The cold war space race emphasized competitive aspects of achieving milestones. But the race to plant a flag or enter the record books stretches back since the beginning of national borders, including the first to the South Pole and the first to circumnavigate the planet in balloons, airplanes and boats.

The University of Arizona author, painter and scientist behind the excellent book, "A Traveler’s Guide to Mars", Dr. Bill Hartmann, put this point into historical perspective, "In an odd way I’ve started trying to organize my head so as not to attach so much importance to the "firsts:" the thrill of landing, the first touchdown, the first pictures. We are so much of a thrill seeking society."

2) Engineering milestones have overshadowed science findings

Reporting the mechanics of a mission–the size of a rover wheel, the driving distance or power consumption– has risked a perspective shift away from why such a mission was put forward: to find first whether water, then life, might ever have existed some place else besides Earth.

One reason for this slant is timing, since the mission data is much more current and daily than the interpretation of bigger issues which may take decades to sort out scientifically. Over time, any slant works itself out, as Dr. Ray Arvidson, deputy principal investigator noted about the findings of water from geological sections, "it demonstrates that when rocks are made on Mars, that fluid can run through them. This section will be in every textbook for the next 10 years."

Another side to this complaint is whether robots are somehow less enticing as planetary emissaries than humans sending back pictures from Mars. Space policy analyst John Logsdon suggested that "The space program cannot be sustained as public entertainment. .. Rivalries help stimulate investment, but no longer are its basic rationale…To leaders, to quote a phrase out of the 1961 memorandum from NASA Administrator Webb and Secretary of Defense McNamara that recommended setting a lunar landing goal to President Kennedy, "it is men, not machines, that captures the imagination of the world."

3) Conspiracies to hide fossil findings

The Bunny Ears controversy, "..a piece of soft material that definitely came from our vehicle"
Credit: NASA/JPL

While it is unclear exactly what could be better news for NASA and Mars’ scientists than a fossil find, the perception continues that somehow a particular rock formation may be telling a different story than the one presented. The answer to this objection seems to be transparency itself, since the unedited images now total well over 10,000 available for public perusal. A better version of this conspiracy theory might well be the effects of mass photographic editing software like Photoshop and internet publishing to alter with a single keystroke what otherwise took years in the planning of a first scientific impression. This school of thought is however not unique to space missions, but surrounds any public event in an era when anybody’s home computer has all the tools any self-publisher could hope for.

The scientific criterion for considering shape as a defining part of an exploration mission has refinements. The Knoll criterion, named after Harvard paleontologist Andrew Knoll, is cited as one example of not just how a biological shape might be similar, but more how a given fossil must be shown not to have a geological explanation in the absence of biology. "You do your exploration," said Knoll, "and if, in the course of that exploration, you find a signal that is (a) not easily accounted for by physics and chemistry or (b) reminiscent of signals that are closely associated with biology on Earth, then you get excited. What will happen then, I can guarantee you, is that 100 enterprising scientists will go into the lab and see how, if at all, they can simulate what you see – without using biology."

This is an extension of Carl Sagan’s comment, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Future missions are likely to adopt an isotopic detection, since carbon and sulfur isotopes are key ingredients to seeing the history of metabolism in action. Biology sorts chemical elements by their molecular weights in identifiable ways relative to geology alone.

4) Too little coverage after the initial landing stories

Hartmann again described this as a sidebar to many of the main science events "Part of the problem for science and exploration is that everyone wants to feel the thrill of being there at the beginning, but that very syndrome makes the public and media lose interest after day one. As I mention in the book, in early days much of the media used to go home from JPL after the first pictures came in from a mission, and editors regarded 3rd or 4th day Viking lander pictures as "old news" — which meant that the public was deprived of the best images after the technicians really got the cameras working well in color! Even now only the first day pictures show up on the mainstream news media, and you have to seek out special web sites for "junkies" who want to keep up on the story. I’m for "spreading the thrill out over time," maintaining a sense of wonder as the later (usually better) pictures come in and the data begin to solidify from a mass of confusing facts into a real story about Mars! The real story comes six months later!"

5) The language of geology is dry, even when talking about a martian ocean

The spherules, blueberries and naming have become important to visualize an alien landscape.
Credit: NASA/JPL

To the uninitiated, traveling to Mars with a geology textbook in tow has been like homework. This instance was put in relief most sharply during the Washington press conference when the geological term ‘vug’ became part of the Mars’ scientific vernacular for the first time. The ‘vug’ describes the holes and pits found in Opportunity’s outcrop, but when not spelled out explicitly, the term sounded like ‘bug’.

Describing a science result to popular audiences has historically had a personal cost for scientists. Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s widow, told Astrobiology Magazine that "it was not part of the science culture to "popularize"…There were huge consequences for Carl. ..[But] he understood so brilliantly, and really prophetically, that… if science was a kind of preserve of the privileged few, then even the little democracy that we have would be jeopardized."

6) Too little international coverage

Mars Global Surveyor
Lycus Sulci Slope Streaks, north of the Olympus Mons volcano. The darker streaks formed more recently than lighter ones, perhaps within the past Mars year or two. MGS MOC Release No. MOC2-672, 21 March 2004
Image Credit: Mars Global Surveyor, Malin Space System

This complaint may have a more poignant suggestion behind it, since when representing an entire planet like Earth as it reaches another one like Mars, the trip itself tends to blur whatever national borders might be locally important. The science community prefers to cross borders rather more freely. Among the four missions that departed for the red planet–two American along with European and Japanese probes–the science has been international. The instrument arms that deliver primary rover science were organized by the University of Mainz in Germany, along with Cornell, JPL, Caltech and a host of others.

Although the European Beagle 2 lander loss cut short the first biological tests since the Viking era, its orbiting Mars Express continues to deliver the highest color resolution images from orbit yet. Hartmann highlighted this bias to Astrobiology Magazine when he emphasized "These sites, plus the European third site (let’s not forget the Mars Express mission!) are looking for ancient sites of ponded water."

7) Naming of rocks and landmarks is more confusing than helpful

In some ways, this complaint centers on finding a Goldilocks’ balance between vivid language and precise scientific terms. Hartmann continued, "I think the mania for "neutral" and often "cute" names is beginning to be more destructive than helpful. As my archaeologist wife commented recently, the appealing story about Mars is that it is so Earth-like, but the proliferation of strange sounding geologic names for surface textures, like "chaotic terrain," "fretted terrain," and so on, leads the public to perceive Mars as ever more alien and non-understandable. This was started with a vengeance during the the Mariner 9 imaging team interpretations in the early 1970s, in which I was involved. But its gotten out of hand! Not to mention the 25 year absurdity of the "face on Mars," a whimsical name that got completely out of control, with the "face on Mars" buffs claiming NASA purposely aborted the Mars Observer mission to hide the truth, and later requiring our Mars Global Surveyor team to drop its science plan, reorient the spacecraft, and waste tax dollars to get images of the "face" as one of the first activities of the mission."

8) No accounting of what could have gone wrong, but didn’t

Mars Global Surveyor
Russell Dunes MGS MOC Release No. MOC2-677, 26 March 2004
Image Credit: Mars Global Surveyor, Malin Space Systems

How to balance turning a nearly impossible challenge into a routine space mission? That question has long created tension whether going to the moon or to Mars. There is a tendency in wanting to tell a story in the simplest or best light, but the cost of this can be summarized as losing the inherent drama behind how very difficult it can be to mount such a successful mission. For some time just prior to the twin rovers’ critical descent phase, Mars was described by both scientists and the media as the "Death Planet", since one in three missions has succeeded. "Everytime I see the descent and landing video, I get nervous," said NASA Associate Administrator for Science, Dr. Ed Weiler. "There are too many moving parts. Too many things that can go wrong. We can do absolutely everything right…after the failure of Mars 99, but if we get a gust of wind that exceeds the limits [on descent in January], we can lose the lander…Three [successes] out of 9 [attempts] aren’t good odds."

This critique is fairly obscure in light of the many things that have actually been challenging to solve in public. Yet scientists and engineers alike might maintain that it is just as well to be lucky as good. Steve Squyres , principal investigator for the rover missions, "I was scared about the Mössbauer. This was an instrument that malfunctioned on us during cruise," the journey from Earth to Mars.

"There was a huge boulder next to Viking," noted Weiler, as he described the 1976 rocket-powered Viking spacecrafts’ descent onto Mars. "All it takes is a boulder of the wrong size in the wrong place. "

9) Didn’t we already know there was water on Mars?

Water from comets are thought to be preserved on a number of planets, including Mercury, and perhaps southern craters on the moon. Water ice on Mars has been detected using a number of remote sensing methods and the erosion patterns of gullies may have a relatively recent geological history. Two years ago, the Mars Odyssey orbiter detected water in ice locked under the surface of the planet. The question of liquid water however is a product of the hostile climate today on Mars, with extremely cold temperatures and thin atmosphere. As ice melts, it sublimes directly to vapor and disperses over an otherwise dry, desolate planet.

Finding water’s ancient history in the form of a salty, acidic sea is thus a remarkable research product from surface science today.

10) Why no biological experiments?

Mars Beagle 2 spacecraft.
Credit: ESA

In the 1970’s Viking experiments added water and nutrients to Mars’ highly oxidizing soil. If metabolic gases could be detected, then it was believed at the time that soil microbes might be dormant but could be environmentally revived. The lack of a clear result however has contributed to a more staged approach, as highlighted by Harvard’s Dr. Knoll, "A couple of years ago, NASA embarked on a funding campaign to essentially try and anticipate any kind of suggestively biological signature that might be found in any kind of exploration of another planet so that we wouldn’t be seen to be scratching our heads. But the plain fact is that you can’t anticipate anything you might see…I actually like the whole architecture of NASA’s plan to go one step at a time, do each step carefully, and in step two build on what you learned in step one. It makes sense."

European Beagle 2 scientists had planned to do some pyrochemical analysis for life’s building blocks, by complex furnace and ashing experiments. Colin Pillinger, a prime architect of the mission’s selected protocols, told Astrobiology Magazine that "Viking did a very noble job. They had three experiments, which were configured to see whether there were any actively metabolizing organisms on the planet. I’m not doing a metabolism experiment. The thing which is crucial as far as I’m concerned is we need to see whether we can detect any organic [biologically produced] matter. We know that there is organic matter in martian meteorites…the way in which I plan to detect organic matter is to burn it. …Any form of carbon will burn to release its carbon into carbon dioxide. It wasn’t that Viking didn’t find life, it was that they thought the conditions were just so horrid, so harsh, nobody anticipated that life could exist there."

The 2009 Mars Science Laboratory is planned as the first set of biological experiments in the current exploration strategy. As the NASA Office of Space Science noted however, there has been considerable debate about when to time a sample return: "We note with concern that there appears to be a growing division within the Mars community between scientists seeking early Mars Sample Return and those who believe it is best to delay it."

MER flight planning chronicled in the diary of the principal investigator for the science packages, Dr. Steven Squyres: Parts 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5 * 6 * 7 * 8 * 9 * 10 * 11 *12.

Related Web Pages

JPL Rovers
Spirit’s Sol images and slideshow
Opportunity image gallery and slideshow
Mars Berries Once Rich in Iron-Water
NASA’s RATs Go Roving on Mars

Water Signs
Microscopic Imager
Gusev Crater
Pancam– Surveying the Martian Scene
Mössbauer spectrometer
Alpha Proton X-ray Spectrometer