Monday, 10 October 2011

Ghosts of Mars (Extract)


(Martian Landscape, as taken by the Mars Viking 1 Lander, 1976)

North-west of Coombs Hill and just beyond the Mawson Glacier, a group of hills are to be found in the wilderness of Antarctica of unprecedented importance. Named after Professor R.S. Allan of the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, Antarctica’s Allan Hills are the site of countless meteorites buried in and around the Transantarctic Mountains. Of these meteorites, one has assumed a particular significance. On December 27, 1984, a team of US meteorite hunters from the ANSMET (Antarctic Search for Meteorites) project chanced upon what looked another Martian meteorite devoid of life. Lying buried in the frozen wastelands for 13,000 years, the meteorite would be classified as AH84001.


This was not the first Martian meteorite to be found on the surface of Earth. Already in 1865, the Shergottite family of meteorites fell in Shergotty, India. The precise time was 9am on the 25th August of that year. Some 46 years later, on June 28th 1911, another meteorite shower fell from deep space, this time landing in the village of El Nakhla El Bahariya, east from Alexandria, Egypt. Here, too, the meteorite arrived at 9am. These cosmic fragments were heavier than the Shergottites, and during the re-entry a chunk of Martian rock was reported to have landed on the spot where a farmer’s dog was resting, vaporising the creature instantly and leaving a green fragment in the dog’s place.


Although it is impossible to establish a strict chronology of the dates leading to the arrival of the Nnakhla meteorite in the village of Nnakhla El Baharia at 9am on June 28th 1911, scientists have established the following: an asteroid would have collided with the surface of Mars some 11.5 million years ago, in the process blasting chunks of solidified magma of the surface of the planet into space. Escaping the gravitational field of Mars, the Nnakhla artefact would orbit the sun and collide with other rocks. Back on Earth, prehistoric ancestors of the Nnakhla dog were in the process of evolving, while Homo sapiens had yet to distinguish themselves from gorillas. And so the Nnakhla meteorite would have to wait silently for millions of years before being carried into the atmosphere of Earth, our planet. There it would fall to surface of the Earth, leaving a column of white smoke in the morning’s sky before landing on the spot where the farmer’s dog would rise from the night.


Along with the Chassignites found in Chassigny, France on October 3rd, 1815 (this time at 8am), the Shergottite and Nnakhla relics all had a crystallization age of 1.3 billion years. Through a process of deductive elimination, the artefacts were found to be of Martian origin. Following the 1976 NASA Viking missions, trapped gases were found in Shergottite that were also found on Mars by the Viking Landers, thus confirming the intergalactic relation between Earth and Mars.

The so-called SNC group of Martian meteorites (after the Shergottite, Nnakhla, Chassignites group) has an anomaly, and the anomaly is AH84001. Although similar in appearance and mineralogy to non-Martian meteorites, AH84001 has some significant differences, amongst which is its age. Whereas the SNC group of meteorites dates to around 1.3 billion years ago, AH84001’s origins are 4.5 billions years old, thus making it one of the oldest bits of the solar system. Moreover, whereas AH84001 is similar to basalts and lherzolites, it cannot be classified as this type of rock. There is another substantial difference between AH84001 and the other SNC meteorites: within its grey core, fossilized organisms bearing the existence of extraterrestrial life in ancient Mars have been found.


(Martian microbes in AH84001)

Led by scientist David McKay and his team at the NASA Johnson Space Center, the dissection of AH84001 on Earth revealed a biomorphic worm like organism. 15 years have passed since McKay and his team made the announcement in 1996. Since then, McKay’s team have amassed further evidence for exobiological phenomena in AH84001, placing it in the Noachian epoch of Mar’s geological history, during which time Mars was covered in vast oceans, thus generating the necessary conditions for life.

Until recently, the study of biopoesis has centred on the idea that organic life may have been sparked by electrical lightning or otherwise formed in the sea, thus producing elementary lifeforms such as the prokaryotes. The earliest form of life on Earth occurred 3.5 billion years ago, 1 billion years after the existence of AH84001. At that point, the Earth was devoid of predators, yet evolution was already in process. The critical question in the discovery of AH84001 is not the question of life on Mars, but whether or not that life forms a xenobiological legacy on Earth. A gulf of space separates us from Martian life. Yet on a molecular level, Martian life is already with us, or rather, in us.


(A comparative photo of Earth and Mars taken by the Mars Exploration Rover)

We would like to have a dialogue with the Martian fossils found in the Antarctica in the winter of 1984. There, we would inquire about the intergalactic exchange of life between each planet. We recognise that if a link is established between Martian and Earth organisms, then our understanding of genuine extraterrestrial life is curtailed. For what we would find in AH84001 is not the genesis of life from Mars, but the prenatal evidence of life on Earth. On this discovery, our cosmic negation in the universe would be accented while our discovery of the fossilised remains of Martian ghosts would be a mutual discovery of our contorted reflection gazing back at us from beyond the sanguine atmosphere of the planet Earth.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet


"It's claustrophobia. they'd rather fall to the ground, than stay abroad!"

Oddly, I was not aware of The Twilight Zone episode, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," when I wrote a post on flying anxiety and the supernatural a couple of weeks ago. Having encountered it by chance, I cannot resist posting the episode by way of an addendum to the previous post. As with so much of The Twilight Zone, the articulation of an uncanny aesthetic is perfect, with the division between imagination and reality blurred in the mania of anxiety. In "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," the uncanny centres on an unnatural horror, which in turn plays on the submission of control that comes with flying and the sense that once aboard, anything is possible.

There are two versions of the episode available. One from the original 1963 series with William Shatner and another version that materialised in the 1983 film with John Lithgow in the lead role. If the earlier version is somewhat kitsch in its depiction of the "thing on the wing," then it counteracts that with Shatner's understated portrayal of nervous anxiety. Lithgow, on the other hand, accents the sheer visceral horror and Lovecraftian madness of the anxious flyer. They are both compelling in their own right, and thus worthy of a comparative viewing. For your viewing pleasure, I have uploaded each version. Enjoy.