Estimate of the Situation™ 2009: Life On Mars?! Can It Be?

Well, don't hold your breath, but the British tabloid The Sun thinks there is -- and that NASA will announce it to the world Thursday.

According to a NASA media alert, a team of Mars scientists will brief the press at 2:00 PM EST on Thursday, January 15th, regarding "analysis of the Martian atmosphere that raises the possibility of life or geologic activity."

The Sun, of course, is trumpeting this rather tentative announcement as proof that NASA scientists believe "alien microbes living just below the Martian soil are responsible for a haze of methane around the Red Planet."

The more mundane truth, probably, is that NASA will announce firm evidence of the presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere and discuss its possible origins as indicated in the NASA media alert: life, or geologic activity.

(Coincidentally, today published its list of the top 5 bets for alien life in our solar system -- the list includes Mars along with Saturn's moons Enceladus and Titan and Jupiter's moons Europa and Io.)

We've been through this drill before, of course -- remember the hullabaloo in August (partially stirred up by yours truly) over a supposed White House briefing on an impending announcement related to the potential for life on Mars? Turned out there was a discovery -- of perchlorate in Martian soil -- but NASA denounced media reports of the White House briefing as bogus.

According to the NASA media alert, those presenting the briefing -- to be carried live on NASA TV -- will be:

- Michael Meyer, Mars program lead scientist, NASA Headquarters in Washington
- Michael Mumma, senior planetary scientist and director, Goddard Center for Astrobiology, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
- Geronimo Villanueva, planetary scientist and astrobiologist, Goddard Space Flight Center
- Sushil Atreya, professor of atmospheric and space science, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
- Lisa Pratt, professor of geological sciences, Indiana University in Bloomington.
Tune in if you can, but don't expect an announcement of cosmic proportions.

But, as always, I could be wrong.

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