Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.

Fingerprints on Mars!

Fingerprint terrain on the Martian south pole icecap
Click for full image.

No, today’s cool image is not a variation of the absurd “face on Mars” that our alien-obssessed fantasy culture focused on for more than twenty years that turned out to be nothing more than a mesa whose shadows in one image made it look very vaguely like a face.

Instead, today’s cool image is of a very weird Martian geological feature that strongly resembles the whorls and curls seen in all fingerprints, and is thus apply named “Fingerprint Terrain.”

The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, reduced, and annotated to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on August 26, 2020. It shows part of the surface of Mars’ south pole residual icecap, about 130 miles from the south pole, at a place where the temporary thin dry ice mantle that arrives every winter with the bulk of it sublimating away with the coming of spring.

The fingerprint in this image shows that sublimation process, with the gaps in dry ice mantle getting wider and larger as you move north, until the ridges between disappear altogether.

But why does it look as it does, like a fingerprint? In other places this sublimation process does not look like this at all. Sometimes we get spiderlike formations. Sometimes we get splatters that suggest geysers. Sometimes the surface sublimates to produce swiss cheese shapes. But why a fingerprint here?

I asked this question of Shane Byrne of the Lunar and Planetary Lab University of Arizona, who had requested this particular image, hoping he and other planetary scientists had investigated this geology and come up with an explanation. His answer illustrates how little we yet know about Mars.

It’s almost definitely some sort of sublimation process, but it hasn’t been well investigated. There are some papers that talk about sublimation landforms on the cap in general and map out where different types are, but nothing that I know that’s specific to the fingerprint terrain.

In other words, why the dry ice cap sublimates away in this manner, at this and other locations, remains unexplained.

I’ll say it again: Mars is strange, Mars is alien, and Mars is therefore a place humans must go.


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  • Cotour

    Q: Does NASA own these “designs” that are being portrayed in these pictures? And the many others that we have all seen of Mars, they are mostly all very interesting.

    These designs would make a very interesting wall paper, fabric, painting, wall sculpture etc.

  • Cotour: All NASA images are released to the public for its use. You can do anything you wish with it, though they request (properly) that credit be given, at minimum, to the spacecraft that took the image. If you click on the link under the August 26, 2020 date, you will their usage policy.

  • Daniel J. Kaczynski

    Dear Bob,

    Although I rarely comment, I want you to know that your website is one of those that
    I visit almost daily. Your content is excellent. But I must say that your “cool image time” postings are
    perhaps my favorite. The images you choose are intriguing, strange, sometimes even outlandish
    ( in both the figurative and even the literal sense of the word. ) Yet oddly enough some of the
    images have a calming effect. Maybe because, when you show us (for example ) a pit in a lava tube
    on Mars, I can’t help but think that Yes! we really can build a base there. Mars is indeed strange, and
    we are going to have to learn a lot of new science and do a lot of “mere engineering” to get to that point.
    Even so, sometimes these images give me hope.

  • J Fincannon

    “Mars is therefore a place humans must go.”

    Bob, what is your opinion on the possibility of backward contamination? Zubrin poo-poos it. But it seems to me we should at least land some biolab (which we did not do in Apollo for the Moon) prior to human to confirm any extant Mars life would not pose a hazard to Earth life.

    Also, I am concerned about the mutation of Earth microbes within humans during the long trips to/from Mars that may result in some nasty bugs.

  • J Fincannon: While we should do due diligence to prevent contamnination from Earth to Mars, I am not worried in the slightest about any Martian life doing damage to us on Earth. It could happen, but I consider the possibility practically nil.

    If there is life on Mars, it is going to so alien to ours that an interaction is unlikely. In fact, I would expect it to find most human environments very toxic to it. Too warm, too rich in oxygen, too wet. It will die before it can do any harm.

    As for Earth bugs mutating on the long trips, such things would have happened already on either Mir or ISS if they were likely.

  • J Fincannon

    Bob: Yes, you have a quite similar attitude to the risk as Zubrin does. Although he dismisses forward contamination too. I do not see forward contamination as an issue for various reasons that are not important to discuss here.

    I find the gung-ho attitude of “humans to Mars” enthusiasts interesting. A lot of data is needed to be blasé about the risks. Avoidable risks should be addressed and not blundered into. Deduction of Mars life characteristics based on zero data is questionable. Let’s assume that we do not know what Mars life looks like or behaves like or whether it is even there or how it responds to oxygen. Interaction may not be at the level you are looking for (like a China virus) but just simply gobble up cells for their components or wander around like prions or nanoparticles to do their damage in unknown ways. Or something we can’t imagine.

    For this reason, an automated biological lab landed on Mars could address these questions by exposing Earth life to the potential Mars life. It might also help to actually send out some robots to look for such life first.

    As to mutation of Earth bugs, recall the Mir and ISS is nicely protected by the Earth’s magnetic field. Not perfect, but a lot better than what you get on a multiyear Mars trip. It is not as good of a shield as being on the ground (the atmosphere provides added protection). Still the statistics are not so good. A human can heal from all the typical bombardment of galactic cosmic radiation (GCR). On a Mars mission, experts have estimated every cell would get punctured by a GCR. The same is likely to happen to the microbes in the human body. While microbes cannot call upon the rest of their “body” to heal or repair like humans can with their collective of cells, the microbes will individually either get damaged by GCR either in the DNA or not. These microbes have the benefit of high reproduction rates, unlike humans. So, many generations of microbes can pass mutations through their colony within the human.

    How many of these microbes (these extra Mars passengers) do we have to worry about?

    A paper entitled “Microbial genes, brain & behavior – epigenetic regulation of the gut–brain axis”, R. M. Stilling, T. G. Dinan, and J. F. Cryan, Genes, Brain and Behavior (2014) 13: 69–86 has some interesting facts. It states : “An estimated 90% of cells found in the human body are not human after all but of mostly prokaryotic origin, derived from at least 40,000 bacterial strains in 1800 genera . Though considerably smaller in size, these approximately 100 trillion cells add up to a mass of almost 1–2 kg in an adult individual – approximately the weight of a full-grown human brain.” Also, “It is estimated that the human gut harbors more than 3.3 million non-human genes , making the 23,285 human protein coding genes currently annotated in the ENSEMBL database appear almost negligible”.

    How to address this? Adequate shielding (a lot more than planned). Or maybe “cleaning up” the humans before going to Mars. The later might be unhealthy (or even impossible) for humans though. There are “germ free” mice (although I am not sure how well the germs have been measured). Also, these mice have behavioral problems which I am sure we would want to avoid for humans under enough stress as it is.

  • Lee Stevenson

    I think a good experiment ( kinda relevant to the subject at hand ) would be to send tardigrains to mars, and see how they fared in Martian water. They seem to be able to survive anything we can throw at them here on earth, and it would be fascinating to see if they could survive and thrive.
    More relevant to the conversation, I believe J Fincannon has a good point. In any potential existential threat situation, an “abundance of caution” approach should be the only way to go.
    Bob, you mention often that Mars is truly alien, and as such we just do not know if, when, and what kinds of “life” may have evolved on Mars… It’s a remote, but non zero chance that something that would find us good to eat, and had the ability to hibernate for VERY long time could be awakened by human activity… ( Remember the water droplets on the phoenix Landers legs…. Who would have thunk it? )
    With a sample size of one, we just don’t know what is and is not possible regarding “life”.
    And given the Martian cycles of warm and cold over the last billion years or 2, it’s certainly not impossible that SOMETHING managed to survive the hard times and thrive in the good.
    If I was on the decision making team, I’d say sending a few mice to mars before men makes nothing but sense, and if the sample return mission ever bares fruit, we treat those samples with an abundance of respect.

  • Lee Stevenson

    @ J Fincannon. I quote “On a Mars mission, experts have estimated every cell would get punctured by a GCR.”
    I find this statement interesting and questionable… Timeframe? Effects of shielding ? Too many variables to be taken at face value. Any links appreciated!

  • J Fincannon

    @Lee Stevenson.
    Yes, I don’t blame you for finding the GCR puncture statement unbelievable.
    The statement was made by Dr. Weil on the Space Show. Too bad there are no transcripts. But I made a note at the time. Worth the listen. He likely had his assumptions stated.

    Although it sounds bad, I think I tried to rationalize it on size metrics. Still, there will be DNA damage to human and microbe cells. The rate is the question and whether it kills the cells or corrupts the DNA to a mutation that is hereditary and dangerous.

  • Lee Stevenson

    @J Fincannon,
    Thanks for the links… I managed the first 20 min of the space show before my night meds kicked in, but will listen in its entirety today while painting my Son’s bedroom!
    This subject touches on my favourite Space related subject…. When in highschool 35 years ago, we were taught that life was only viable on this planet, all life was essentially powered by sunlight, and we would never know if other stars had planetary systems. I was ridiculed by my science teachers for my skepticism! I wish I could meet them today over a beer, and gently remind them of their blinkered vision back then.
    Enceladus and Europa’s hidden oceans, the clouds of Venus, the transient wet periods on Mars, the absolutely alien environment of Titan, ( the most exciting, and least threatening to us of all possible enviroments for life as we don’t know it…. I can’t wait for, and hope I live to see the footage from that helicopter buzzing over the rolling ice dunes!)
    Rocks from the moon give insight into our origen, but essentially are boring. Commercially important, perhaps. Scientifically interesting, certainly. But adding towards the largest question mankind has.. “are we alone?”, Not at all.
    That is the question we have been following for centuries now, and for the first time in the history of mankind we have the ability to try and answer that question! Oh that the money spent on arms and aggression around the world could be allocated towards exploring, and even colonizing the last great frontier, and towards answering that greatest of questions!
    Sorry for babbling… lol…. But I see the passion in your writing also. I don’t know your age, but I am optimistic that I will see see, and you will see some answers in our lifetimes.
    Let’s send mice before men, then tread deep into the cosmos, tread deep, but we must tread gently.

  • Lee Stevenson

    (props to CS for the timber of my last post… After re-reading it, I realized I had blatantly ripped off “the pale blue dot” monologue… It’s embedded in my soul… RIP Carl… You will always be missed!

  • J Fincannon

    Lee Stevenson:
    I would not be dismissive of the Moon. Carl Sagan once speculated of the possibility of life within the Moon. No, not intelligent life, but rather microbes. He figured that there was a zone of temperature in which water could exist, thus life might too. Was pushing for planetary protection way back before Apollo. Nowadays, no one mentions the possibility. But I am figuring once we drill deep enough we might come up with something interesting. I have the link somewhere of Sagan’s interesting analysis.

  • Lee Stevenson

    @J Fincannon
    I have never heard of this theory before! Most interesting, and any links would be most appreciated!
    I guess it makes nothing but sense that a body still cooling would have a zone in it somewhere that could contain liquid water, and although I find it hard to imagine a subterranean biosphere IN the moon…. Why not?
    My very scientific gut feeling is that anywhere there is complex active chemistry and an energy gradient that can be exploited, given enough time, life will arise. If it does not then that has profound implications for our position in the universe.
    If I may wax lyrical once more… In my youth I once ate a quantity of a certain type of mushrooms while camping in the woods. The insight I found, which stays with me to this day is that life is EVERYWHERE…. Every rock is host to lichens and bacterial mats, the very soil under my feet a product of life, small trees growing in the tiniest of fissures in the granite, grasses thriving in a small indentation filled with leaf litter…. There was nothing I could see that was not alive or host to something alive. Then I realized that here on earth, life thrives EVERYWHERE. The intervening years have only re-enforced this view, nuclear reactors, hot smokers, acidic ponds and the deepest oceans are all host to life. Given the Capernican principle, I cannot imagine a universe that is not brim full with it.
    Intelligent life could be a different matter… Our couple of hundred millennia here is tiny compared to the history of earth, and it remains to be seen if intelligence is the evolutionary advantage we think it is… My money is acctually on the cockroaches ;-)

  • J Fincannon

    Lee Stevenson:
    Sagan, Carl. “BIOLOGICAL CONTAMINATION OF THE MOON.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 46.4 (1960): 396–402.
    “… Because of its great potential importance, the admittedly very speculative possibility must be raised that life arose on the Moon before the secondary lunar atmosphere was lost to space. Conditions on the Moon 5 billion years ago were probably not very different from conditions on the Earth 5 billion years ago. Recent thinking on the origin of life on this planet is increasingly inclined toward a very rapid origin of the first self-reproducing system. If a similar event also occurred on the Moon, natural selection may be expected to have kept pace with the increasingly more severe lunar environment, at least for some period of time. If subsurface conditions exist similar to those described in the preceding paragraph, then the possibility of an extant lunar parabiology must not be dismissed in as cavalier a manner as it has been in the past.”… “Organisms shielded from solar illumination, perhaps in congealed dust matrix interstices, might survive cosmic radiation for 1 billion years or more; lunar subsurface temperatures are too low to impede survival.”

    Sagan had proposed that it would be best to do robotic testing and deep core drill sampling (10s of meters below) to more temperate depths where he speculated life could exist. Somewhere a consensus must have been reached (at NASA or the scientific community?) that life cannot exist within the lunar surface. However I do not see robotic testing that provides data for this conclusion (Apollo only reached down 3 meters).

    We are very lucky about there not being dangerous microbes on the lunar surface since 1) obviously the astronauts got covered with lunar dust as well as breathed and ingested it so they were going to bring it back, 2) we did not send any animals to the surface first to test lunar dust/surface safety, 3) the “containment facility” was obviously not air tight (one astronaut commented on ants going to and from it), 4) once they landed in the ocean the door popped open to expose the Earth to any possible microbes, 5) the astronauts themselves were not in plastic bubbles but exposed to the ocean and air before being escorted to the “containment facility”. A better approach would have been lifting the capsule onto the ship and placing it in a air tight enclosure. But this was deemed too difficult, unsafe and impractical.

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