March 26, 2004 | 4:18 p.m. ET
Martian seas vs. earthly seas: Jean-Michel Cousteau, the keeper of his late father's sea-loving legacy, thinks it's great that the vanished oceans of Mars are in the news this week. He even thinks we should send probes and people to study the full story of how the Red Planet once had bodies of liquid water and lost them. But all the attention paid to Mars has sparked a worry as well.

"Because I want to go there, I strongly believe that we'll have to take care of home base," he told me Thursday. "We cannot go to Mars if home base is screwed up."

What good will it do us to study Mars' dead oceans if we're killing off our own?

"I don't know how we can refocus our attention on what is vital for the human species. ... We have to familiarize the public with the connection between the ocean and our daily lives. We are turning the ocean into a cesspool, a garbage can — and nobody knows that," Cousteau said.

So Cousteau, the eldest son of famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau and president of the California-based Ocean Futures Society, has seized upon the Mars finding as an opportunity for a little exercise in perspective.

Image: Jean-Michel Cousteau
Ocean Futures Society
Jean-Michel Cousteau takes to the water off the Cayman Islands.
For example, $820 million was spent on the twin-rover missions, and NASA's new space initiative calls for $1 billion in additional spending over five years. In comparison, Cousteau says the federal government spends just $14 million a year on earthly ocean research.

"It's a drop in the bucket compared to what you see for the space program," Cousteau observed.

You could argue that we've already seen more of Mars than we have of our own ocean depths. Only an estimated 5 percent of the ocean has been explored. And the undiscovered resources of the sea — including, perhaps, organisms that could point the way toward future treatments for cancer, AIDS and other scourges — are far closer at hand and currently far more valuable than lunar helium-3 or Martian real estate.

Cousteau doesn't begrudge NASA the $1 billion, but he hopes that the White House will at least follow the recommendation of its own advisory panel on ocean exploration, and boost marine science funding to $75 million. In an open letter, he urges President Bush to go even further:

"Mr. President, I encourage you to be truly bold. I encourage you to go where no man has gone before. I encourage you to commit your administration to an additional $1 billion investment in ocean exploration. ... The true ‘one giant leap for mankind’ may be beneath the waves."

Image: Batfish
Ocean Futures Society
Jean-Michel Cousteau swims with batfish.
He realizes that shifting the equation will take more than open letters and legislative lobbying: The imagination of a new generation will have to be captured, just as it was a generation ago by his father's journeys in the Calypso.

That's the legacy Cousteau is continuing, by fostering an appreciation of the beauties of the seas, and emphasizing the importance of managing the oceans wisely. Among his initiatives: Ambassadors of the Environment, which helps students experience the relationship between the water world and terra firma; the Sustainable Reefs program, which educates those who live around the world's coral reefs — in developed as well as developing countries — about the importance of keeping the "forests of the sea" healthy; and, of course, television projects such as "Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Adventures," presented in cooperation with public-TV station KQED.

Currently, a TV-savvy crew is following gray whales as they negotiate what Cousteau calls an "obstacle course" of pollution, oil tankers, sonar disruptions and other threats, on their way up the West Coast to Canada and Alaska. "We're going to follow them until they stop," Cousteau said.

The shows are being recorded in high-definition television, using technology that even Cousteau's father would marvel at.

"The tone and the pace of the shows is changing from what it was in the old days. ... We can do things as good if not better, in half the time. So we are beating the system," the younger Cousteau joked.

Cousteau's brightest hopes are directed toward the younger generation, and the promise of the Internet for knitting together a global network of ocean advocates. He pointed to the example of Ryan's Well Foundation, which was established by Canadian youngster Ryan Hreljac at the age of 6 to fund a well-building project in a Ugandan village. As of today, at the age of 12, Hreljac has raised $800,000 for 70 wells in seven African countries.

"This is one person," Cousteau remarked. "It really tells me that if we roll up our sleeves properly, we can resolve all these problems, and we can go to Mars. But we can't do it the other way around."

March 26, 2004 | 4:18 p.m. ET
Martian methane hints at life: Europe's Mars Express orbiter has picked up the signature of methane in the Red Planet's atmosphere, researchers say, and if the results are confirmed, that guarantees a huge scientific payoff.

The jackpot could be the eventual discovery of microbial life on Mars. Organic digestion  (ranging from methane-producing microbes to flatulent cows) is one of the primary methods for replenishing atmospheric methane on Earth. But, as laid out in the news section of the journal Science (subscription required) and Oliver Morton's Mainly Martian blog, there are other possibilities, including previously undetected volcanic activity or other geochemical processes, perhaps involving subsurface water.

Even the less thrilling possibilities would serve as a substantial consolation prize, Morton observes. He also cautions that the findings haven't yet been peer-reviewed — so don't bet the farm that there's life on Mars just yet.

Speaking of farms, I'm seeing plenty of them during my stay in Iowa. If you're ever in need of a high-speed connection in Dubuque, look no further than Miguel's Coffee Bar, where I'm currently tapping away to the accompaniment of a hissing espresso machine. Just what the doctor ordered for a gray March day in America's heartland.

March 26, 2004 | 4:18 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
Space.com: Mystery of Mars' icy spirals solved
Wired.com: Probe flotilla to scour planets
Scientific American: Did we trade our bite for brains?

March 26, 2004 | Updated 1:45 p.m. ET
The next space millionaire: Space Adventures, the company that sent millionaires Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth to the international space station as the first orbital passengers to pay their own way, is due to introduce another space station client on Monday. According to the NASA Watch Web site, Gregory Olsen, chief executive officer of Sensors Unlimited, is preparing for the multimillion-dollar flight.

Two millionaires signed initial contracts last year and could fly to the station in a Russian Soyuz craft this fall or in April 2005. As NBC’s James Oberg reported Thursday , NASA is considering shifting its own space station schedule to help the Russians out and accommodate their paying guests.

A couple of years ago, Olsen gave the University of Virginia, his alma mater, $15 million — and that’s roughly equivalent to the going rate for a commercial ride to the space station.

NASA Watch says Olsen is in Russia for training, but a prospective space traveler is scheduled to be in New York for Monday morning’s event — as am I. Will it be Olsen, or perhaps the other guy, said to be a New York real-estate developer? You’ll hear much more about the adventure Monday afternoon.

Update for 1:45 p.m. ET March 26: NASA Watch now quotes sources in Russia as saying that Marshall Cohen, who is listed in recent corporate literature as Sensors Unlimited's president, may be going into space rather than Olsen. However, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti refers to Olsen as a contender for a space station flight.

Space Adventures declined to confirm any of the reports on Friday. "Marshall Cohen, Greg Olsen — it's all a rumor mill," a spokeswoman said. Stay tuned for the authoritative word on Monday.

March 24, 2004 | 4 p.m. ET
Red Planet puzzlers: When it comes to Mars, the scientific questions always seem to outnumber the answers.

Case in point: Tuesday's news briefing , at which researchers reported that rocks around the Opportunity rover's landing site suggested the existence of an ancient body of flowing water eons ago. Did the water spread far enough to be considered an ocean? How long ago did the water exist in liquid form, and how long did it stay that way? On those follow-up questions, the best that scientists could say was, "Stay tuned."

Cosmic Log readers, meanwhile, sent in questions that are more amenable to answers. Here's a quick Q&A, offered with the understanding that I reserve the right to revise and extend my remarks, particularly if you want to send in additional insights:

Beryl: "I have a question that I don't think I've seen addressed by any scientist: time difference, i.e., if it is 4:00 p.m. Tuesday, March 23, here on the East Coast — what time is it on Mars? Four o'clock three days from now? I would love to know what light you can shed, and I realize it may be complicated."

Answer: There is no Standard Mars Time, because the local time would vary according to longitude, just as it does on Earth. And because the Martian day, or sol, is about 39 minutes longer than Earth's 24-hour day, you can't make an easy conversion between the times on the two planets. The Mars science team does use a 24-hour clock to keep track of time at the Spirit and Opportunity rover sites — but those hours are stretched out slightly to match Mars' rotation rate. To find out what time it is at those sites, you can either download a nifty Java-based application called Mars24, or you can simply check the graphical clocks on NASA's Mars rover home page. But don't try using an Earth calendar to keep track of Martian dates: The Martian year lasts about 687 Earth days, or 668.6 Martian sols. Check out the "Millennium Mars Calendar" for the history of calendar schemes for the Red Planet.

Terry: "Would a body of water on Mars have tides like those on Earth?"

Answer: My first impulse was to say that any Martian tides would be far less pronounced than earthly tides. After all, Mars has only two minuscule moons and is farther from the sun than Earth is — so you wouldn't see the dramatic gravitational effect that creates tides on Earth. But that doesn't rule out tides completely. Last year, scientists reported that sun-caused tides appeared to have a significant effect on Mars' metal core. The bottom line? Yes, there would have been tides, but probably not on a scale that would attract interplanetary surfer dudes.

Joe: "I have a question that may seem simplistic but I have to ask anyway. In regards to the twin rovers' mission life expectancy being short-lived due to dust accumulating on the solar panels and thus reducing their power output: Why weren't there any wipers added to periodically keep them clean? It seems that the importance of the missions, not to mention the expense, would justify such a luxury item."

Answer: Cornell University, which played a leading role in designing the rovers' scientific payload, addresses that frequently asked question in its FAQ: "The solar arrays are fairly large and, subsequently, the brushes or wipers would also have to be large. A brush or wiper system would require too much mass and probably wouldn't do a very good job of getting rid of Martian dust. The particles are only about 1 to 2 micrometers in size." NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been working on a stripped-down wiper system for solar panels, but it's not yet ready for prime time. Besides, dust accumulation isn't the only limiting factor for the missions: Also contributing to the rovers' eventual demise will be battery degradation, the shorter winter days, the colder winter nights and the thousand natural shocks that robots are heir to.

Jim: "I'm surprised (a bit) that you and most of the media have been hornswoggled by NASA into believing that we have landed on the moon and Mars, when in fact we have not! And you ought to be ashamed of yourself for being so gullible! ... Why are pictures of the sky absent from photos of, trips to, and landings on the moon and Mars? Why are there no pictures of the stars, planets, constellations, the sun and Earth; and Mars (from the moon)?"

Answer: Actually, the current rover missions are notable precisely because they've yielded pictures of Earth and the night-sky constellations. Pictures of the sun and even eclipses have also been taken. As for the lunar landings, night-sky objects are generally not visible in the pictures because of the camera exposure settings used by the astronauts. However, the Apollo moonwalkers took scads of pictures of Earth, as anyone who has seen the "Earthrise" pictures would know. Phil Plait's "Bad Astronomy" Web site provides powerful antidotes for such moon-mission doubts and other common cosmic mistakes. In fact, the book version of "Bad Astronomy" is an apt selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, our shameless rip-off of the "Today" Book Club and others of that ilk. Just to refresh your memory, the CLUB Club highlights books with cosmic themes that could be found at your local library or used-book emporium.

I'm taking my copy of the book with me today as I head out of the office once again, this time to visit family in Iowa and travel on to New York. The Log may not be updated quite as regularly as usual, but I'll send virtual postcards when I can. Regular service will resume a week from today.

March 23, 2004 | Updated 6 p.m. ET
Martian mailbag: Was there water on Mars? Was there life? What do scientists know, and how long have they known it? When it comes to Red Planet research, it's hard to wow the public anymore. One big reason is that science fiction has pounded our brains with the idea that Mars was not only more conducive to life in the ancient past, but also could hold evidence of past or even present life.

Study the latest coverage and let me know what you think about the current state of the scientific story. Are you excited, or is it getting to be ho-hum?

For an extra burst of excitement, try NASA's latest Flash feature — which gives you an opportunity to get into the spirit of Mars exploration by driving virtual Mars rovers on your desktop. The landscape is based on actual imagery from the twin rover missions.

And if you need an antidote for the ho-hums, you must check out The Onion's update on the rovers. (You can be sure they're kidding.)

Here's a sampling of the post-briefing feedback:

Ron Stewart, Indiana, Pa.: "Even without any chance of life having existed on Mars in a previous time, it is absolutely worthwhile to send a human crew there, and if there was water, and the possibility of ancient life along with that water, then that infinitely increases the worthiness. There is a flag planted on the moon, we are decades late in planting one on Mars."

Robert, Atlanta: "What a disaster. The worst outcome seems to be coming to pass; Opportunity and Spirit seem to have found evidence of water on Mars. This will only encourage NASA to press for more funding to further explore Mars. Instead of searching for life on Mars, saving life on Earth should be a higher priority, whether that life is endangered species, cultural life in Compton, Calif., or AIDS victims in Africa. Can't we all agree that life exists on other planets and solar systems but that we will learn more about life by funding biological studies on this planet or by funding the arts?"

Fred, Helmetta, N.J.: "I believe NASA's ultimate goal on Mars is to terraform it into a habitable second world for Earth's plants, animals and humans. By creating a greenhouse effect and melting the ice we can theoretically resurrect Mars. If there is life present, we need to consider the ethics of altering an indigenous species' evolution for our benefit."

Pete Kenny, Enfield, Conn.: "One doesn't need much of an imagination to rationalize that life on Earth arrived here eons ago from Mars. Look around. Our environmental policies are creating another 'red planet.' Probably not the first time we did it."

Christopher Gurin, Plymouth Meeting: "Nothing is more jarring than the dichotomy of two universes we see in the news. First, there is the exhilarating possibility that we may answer one of the great questions: Are we alone? By contrast, the very places that gave rise to a civilization able to send our mechanical proxies to another world are mired in an endless, mindless tribal blood feud. We should be proud and ashamed at the same time."

Guy S. Newell, Niles, Mich.: "The question is not 'Was there or is there life on Mars?' The question is, 'Is there nightlife on Mars?' and 'How's the shopping?' If NASA wants to get mainstream America truly interested in space exploration, these issues must be addressed."

... And feedback from before the briefing:

Manuela-Kathrine Martignoni, Lugano (Ticino), Switzerland: "I think that NASA will finally announce the discovery of fossils (and therefore the presence of old complex life!) on Mars. See this photo and you will realize that true Martian fossils have been photographed on the Red Planet!"

Mats Wernander, Stockholm, Sweden: "I think they have found gold on Mars. Mars will be the new Klondike."

Duane Skuce, Sarnia: "I think that it's only logical that if life exists on Earth with Mars so close, at some point life had to exist there in some form. The thinking that Earth is the only place in the universe where life exists is not only the height of arrogance, but is akin to the thinking of Columbus's time, the earth being flat. However, I do have serious concerns about the consequences of finding that life. Here on Earth, the introduction by mistake, negligence or with intent of a foreign life form into the habitat where it was never present before has proved over and over again to have very negative results on members of that environment. I think one must use extreme caution here in the search for cosmic life, not letting excitement overcome caution."

Steve: "In the vein of speculation about the upcoming science announcement from Opportunity findings, have a look this pic. It quite clearly shows a tortoise basking in the Martian sun. Here are some more pics taken since Opportunity left Eagle Crater, something that has not been mentioned in any press releases or on the mission status page of the Mars rovers Web site. The third row of pics show what might be a row of pools of liquid, obviously where the tortoise drinks from. Perhaps tortoises were launched into space by our ancestors and their shells were able to protect them from the heat of atmosphere entry. How they are able to breathe in the Martian environment is yet to be explained, along with why they haven't exploded in the low-pressure environment. Maybe their leathery skin acts as a spacesuit."

I'm sure Steve is kidding. ... He is, isn't he?

March 23, 2004 | 6 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
Nature: Human breasts grown on mice
Discovery.com: 'Snowball Earth' riddle solved?
Wired.com: Robots invade San Francisco
Slate: The science of 'Eternal Sunshine'

March 22, 2004 | 2 p.m. ET
News flash from the Red Planet: NASA's top officials and the Mars rover missions' top scientists will announce "a major scientific finding" at 2 p.m. ET Tuesday, the space agency announced today. You'll be able to watch the briefing via MSN Video.

The last time a Mars news briefing was announced just a day in advance, it was to report  geological hints that the Opportunity rover's landing site was "drenched" with water many millions or even billions of years ago. Those were considered "significant findings."

So how does a major finding compare? One could argue that "major" outranks "significant," because NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe is due to give opening remarks this time around.

Other speakers, as listed in a NASA advisory, include Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for space science; Cornell University's Steve Squyres, the principal investigator for the rover missions; John Grotzinger, a sedimentologist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of the rover science team; Dave Rubin, a U.S. Geological Survey sedimentologist; and Jim Garvin, NASA Headquarters' lead scientist for Mars and the moon.

Go to MSN Video to watch live coverage of Mars briefings and moreEveryone on the list except for O'Keefe and Rubin was also at the earlier briefing on the significant findings. This time, Rubin will offer commentary on the major finding — which once again is sure to have something to do with Opportunity and ancient water.

No one at NASA is spilling the beans, but the fact that two sedimentologists are on the panel hints that the news has something to do with a close analysis of the geological layers exposed in the bedrock at Opportunity's landing site. The way those layers were deposited could show conclusively whether large bodies of water played a role in building the Mars we know today.

Agency spokesman Don Savage says Tuesday's news is more than "significant," at least for the scientists.

Compared with the news from the past briefing, the findings to be announced Tuesday "would have been the headline," he said. "The other [findings] would have been, 'And we also found....' This is really the bigger story for the science team."

March 22, 2004 | 4 p.m. ET
The great debate over NASA's space vision:
New York Review of Books: "The Wrong Stuff"
The Space Review: "Whispers in the Echo Chamber"
N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Is the aerospace industry ready for Mars?
Moon-Mars commission meeting in Atlanta

The fine print: Looking for older items? Check the Cosmic Log archive. Share your perspective on cosmic subjects with Alan Boyle. If you link to this page, you can use http://cosmiclog.msnbc.com or http://www.cosmiclog.com as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.

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