August 25th, 2003

Close encounter, by celestial standards San Francisco Chronicle

Sixty thousand years ago, the Neanderthal people and early modern humans must surely have watched a faint but familiar point of light in the southeastern sky grow brighter and brighter until its brilliant topaz-yellow light outshone everything in the nighttime heavens save the moon. We will never know what those people may have thought or feared, because they left no record among their rare artifacts. But today we do know what they were seeing: It was the distant planet Mars, flying on its elliptical track around the sun and closing its gap on Earth’s orbit while it appeared to blaze in brightness as the two planets neared.

February 4th, 2003

Nuclear-powered spacecraft plan feared San Francisco Chronicle

Saturday’s space shuttle disaster has stirred grassroots opposition to the Bush administration’s recently announced plan to develop nuclear-powered space rockets. “If there had been a nuclear reactor on board (the Columbia space shuttle), this debris field they’re warning people not to come too close to would be a considerably bigger mess,” said physicist Edward Lyman, head of the private Nuclear Control Institute in Washington, D.C. But many space enthusiasts say nuclear-powered spaceships offer the only way to penetrate the deepest, darkest corners of the solar system. Out there, billions of miles from Earth, sunlight is too weak to energize existing forms of solar-electric cells.

April 8th, 2002

Mars called key to quest for alien life San Francisco Chronicle

Chris McKay’s album of family photos opens with a picture of fossilized bacteria, entombed within rock billions of years old. “This is one of (my family’s) oldest, oldest, oldest ancestors,” declares the NASA scientist, showing a slide of the photo and drawing a big laugh from his packed audience. But he’s only half joking. The quest for “alien” life forms on the primeval Earth and their possible counterparts on Mars has consumed much of McKay’s career at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, he said on the opening day of the space agency’s biannual Astrobiology Science Conference.

February 17th, 2002

Guarding against space travelers San Francisco Chronicle

His business card reads: “John D. Rummel, Ph.D., Planetary Protection Officer.” He’s a cheerful, 49-year-old NASA biologist whose job is to keep the Earth safe from any microbes that might one day turn up on Mars, and to keep our own germs from contaminating the Red Planet — or any other heavenly body. Even if a spacecraft were to land on a completely sterile planet, there is a danger that microbes on a robot would take hold and forever confound scientific efforts to determine if the germs were native. “We know a lot about life in Florida,” Rummel said of NASA’s primary launching site. “We don’t want to go all the way to Mars, and discover life from Florida.”

February 16th, 2002

Scientists probe the life in rocks San Francisco Chronicle

Armed with the modern tools of biotechnology, scientists are unraveling secrets of the most ancient life forms on Earth — methane-eating microbes that inhabit deep sediments on the ocean floor, or sulfur-breathing bacteria that lurk in dark fissures miles below ground. To the researchers in the arcane but fascinating field of “geobiology,” the distinction between the study of life and the study of Earth is blurred. The minerals beneath us so teem with life that these scientists speak of rocks being “alive.”

August 13th, 2001

Mars enigma: One scientist’s contentious theory about planet may hold water San Francisco Chronicle

In recent years, NASA has launched wave after wave of robots to Mars. One of their goals is to find evidence that liquid water once flowed on the surface of the Red Planet and carved its spectacular, Grand Canyon-like terrain. But is the water hypothesis all wet? An iconoclastic Australian geoscientist claims the fourth planet from the sun is as dry as a bone – and always has been. American researchers initially scoffed at Nick Hoffman’s thesis. But now they’re starting to take him more seriously. There’s more at stake than the popular theory that ancient rivers, lakes and perhaps oceans carved the rust-red Martian terrain. According to Hoffman, those mountains, mesas and canyons were dug by epic floods of liquefied carbon dioxide gas, not by water.

July 10th, 2001

Enormous dust storm could coat all of Mars San Francisco Chronicle

Whipped by 100 mph winds, a monster dust storm is fast covering the face of Mars and could soon smother the entire planet in fine red sandy particles, scientists reported yesterday. First spotted barely a month ago in images from the Mars Global Surveyor, the storm has already covered more than 40 million square miles and is growing day by day, according to Philip Christensen, a planetary geologist at Arizona State University in Tempe.

December 23rd, 1999

Bradbury Foretold Polar Lander’s Fate San Francisco Chronicle

It is clear now that the Polar Lander will not be sending back signals from Mars, the red planet. Something has gone wrong. The scientists don’t know what happened to the spacecraft, but a lot of us do know. The Martians got it.

December 2nd, 1999

Idea of Alien Life Gaining Credibility: What If the Mars Probe Finds Something? San Francisco Chronicle

As the Mars Polar Lander spacecraft nears the Red Planet on its water- seeking mission, scientists are already discussing the societal implications of finding life elsewhere in the universe, a sign that a once-dubious idea has found new respectability.