I’ve always been a fan of the space program, since the days of the Gemini flights. I was only seven when Mercury ended, but John Glenn orbiting the Earth in Friendship 7 certainly caught my attention. I built all the models of the spacecraft, and had a poster of the astronauts on my bedroom wall.
This led to a lifelong interest in astronomy, planetology, and exobiology, all courses I took during my various stints in college. I’ve always had a particular fondness for Mars. The Viking landers in 1976 were a bit of a disappointment when it came to the hope of finding life. James Lovelock, creator of Gaia theory and part of the Viking project, predicted that the Red Planet would be lifeless based on its static atmosphere; our own here on Earth is full of gases that wouldn’t last long were it not for them constantly being replaced by the activity of life. Lovelock, whom I like a lot, thought it was possible that there might be small pockets of residual life left over from when Mars was warmer and wetter, but not enough to make it a living biosphere in present times. But he just about broke my fave science guru and his fellow Viking team-member Carl Sagan’s heart when he told him that.
On the other hand, since then Ben Bova, Kim Stanley Robinson, and other science-fiction writers have come up with plausible ideas for life still existing (assuming it ever did), and I’ve always wanted to be on the first manned mission, with my rock hammer, to look for fossils in ancient lake beds. That’s the place to find evidence of at least former life. Bury me in Hellas Planitia! (starts with Hell, very fitting.) When I was a kid, I got my first look at Mars through the 48” refractor at the James Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton in northern California. It was a fuzzy, mottled-red orb, but still way cool. In 2003, during its closest approach in hundreds of years, I saw it through a big reflector at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. At first I was disappointed, because it looked the same, until I found the focus knob (I’m a klutz). THEN it was magnificent! I went home, put on Gustav Holst’s “Mars, Bringer of War” from his suite “The Planets” really loud, and drew what I’d seen with highlighters. Even with my own fuzzy vision, I could look up at the night sky with naked eye and see this burning red point up there.
You may be asking, “what does this have to do with hazardous waste?” Fair question. When I was an instructor, sometimes my students would get fidgety when I’d go off on a seeming tangent, but patience is a virtue, and if they lengthened their attention span, they’d see that I’d eventually bring it back around full-circle to the topic, and make the course material more meaningful in the process.
This post all came about because recent information from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter indicates that liquid water may exist seasonally in low-lying areas of the planet. It’s thought that the brininess due to salts would keep the freezing point lower than 0°C (32 °F), the same as in our oceans. Where enviro stuff comes in is that surface soils on Mars also have a fair amount of perchlorates, reactive oxidizing chemicals that also lower the freezing point of water and help keep it liquid.
Perchlorates are substances that end in O4, , meaning that they have four extra oxygens they’re happy to contribute to chemical reactions, which can result in pretty spectacular fires or explosions. That’s why they use them in solid rocket fuel. That’s why they use them in fireworks, dammit, so think about that next Fourth of July (or Guy Fawkes Day, if you’re in Old Blighty). Everything’s hazardous in a high enough dose, or if you use it wrong. No difference here.
The thing that prompted me to write this post was a bit of synchronicity. My pal Diane Tegarden’s web radio show, the “Firewalker Flare,” was on today, and her guest didn’t call in, so she did a bang-up job on her own, and one of the things she discussed was perchlorate contamination from rocket-fuel manufacturing sites near her in Pasadena, California, which has caused the city to find other sources for drinking water. Tune in at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/diane-tegarden. I’ve been a guest twice on the show, with Diane as a gracious and very well-informed host. The Superfund (CERCLA) program is one of her favorite issues to focus on, and we have a perchlorate site of our own across the river in Illinois.
In fact, Chris Hayes, a cool reporter from KTVI Channel 2 here in St. Louis, interviewed me three years ago about that site. Perchlorates aren’t “toxic,” in the sense that of being poisonous; they’re a physical hazard. Remember, ignitable, corrosive, reactive, and toxic are the four characteristics that can make a waste “hazardous,” and the three properties are physical, chemical, and biological (radiological is dealt with separately by different agencies). This means that perchlorates would be rated as D001 for ignitability, and would get the primary waste code of D003 for reactivity. Toxins or poisons sometimes take longer to kill ya (although with some, like nerve gases or pentaborane, one whiff is all it takes), but with physical hazards, you’re dead before any toxic properties can even take effect. I talked previously about hyponatremia and how drinking way too much water all at once can produce a toxic effect by thinning out your blood chemistry, but if a giant chunk of frozen water hits you in the head, the game’s over already. Physical hazards usually trump chemical hazards.
So what makes this whole shebang so interesting is that something we don’t want in OUR water may be helping keep water liquid on our sister planet, the only one we have any hope of terraforming for a second home, and maybe keeping residual life, if there IS any, alive. I love irony. And iron is what makes Mars all rusty and pink in color, though the etymology is different.
Check out the two articles below for info on the findings:
As the late PBS astronomy guy, Jack Horkheimer the Star Hustler always said, “keep looking up!”