Water on Mars: Score One for Amateur Research

Unless you were captured by the Mole people and just recently released --I heard Molemaids are hot, bro!-- you've probably read the news from NASA announcing the discovery of liquid water on the south pole of Mars; something which *exponentially* increases our chances of finding extraterrestrial life on our sibling planet in the near future.

Director Ridley Scott, who is about to release his newest film 'The Martian', claims he knew about the flowing water on Mars "about two months ago", when the head of NASA showed him the photographs that were released yesterday to the rest of the world.

But there was someone who knew the dark stains streaking across the Martian landscape was evidence of liquid water more than 14 years ago. That person was amateur astronomer Efrain Palermo.

Efrain, who resides in Portland, is what NASA scientists would call an 'armchair researcher.' He holds no degrees in Physics, Astronomy or Geology; but nonetheless has a passion for Science and Space. And like many other civilians, he likes to go through the thousands of publicly-released images taken by NASA's probes orbiting the Red Planet for almost 2 decades.

It was in one of those archival images taken by the Mars Global Surveyor --which has been charting the planet's surface since September of 1997-- in 2000-2001, when Efrain came across an image showing black streaks, which at that time were interpreted as 'dust slides' by NASA. However, Efrain became convinced by casual observation the streaks were water-related.

After gleaning through thousands of images, I had collected over 400 that had streaks in them. [Software engineer] Jill England joined me, and wrote a program to look for duplicate images taken at different times of the year, and she found images which showed flow activity in present time.

Richard Hoagland suggested plotting the images, and when we did so it became evident that the streaks were all in the equatorial zone of Mars, which is the warmest part of Mars and therefore likely candidates for liquid water.

Efrain and Jill partnered with Harry Moore --a geologist for the Society for Planetary SETI Research(SPSR) , Blaine, Tennessee-- who also had an interest in water on Mars, and brought sound geology to the table. Together they wrote a short paper --which you can read here-- and presented it at the 4th International Mars Society Convention, at Stanford University, in August 2001.

Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society, had this to say about Palermo et al and yesterday's anouncement on his Facebook page:

This is remarkable, Moore, England, and Palermo are amateur astronomers who went over the MGS data on their own to make the discovery, 14 years before NASA's announcement today.

Asked for a comment, Efrain showed diplomacy albeit tainted with justified frustration, because his work wasn't given its due recognition in yesterday's landslide of Mars-related articles:

The recent news announcement was validating; even though we did not have access to spectroscopic tools ,and we're working with the much lower resolution of the Mars Orbital Camera, we still arrived at the same conclusions 14 years ago. The information has been on my website since 2001, and I presented my seeps paper at the 2001 Mars Society Convention at Stanford U. While it has been gratifying to have NASA validate that work, it is also frustrating that no credit was given to the paper and its authors.

Frustrating, indeed. On the one hand NASA and the US government are always trying to keep the public interested in space exploration --after all, that's how they gain the necessary funding for future missions-- and yet when a group of amateurs make a substantial contribution to Science, they get silently swept under the rug without even a kudos.

Is it because they lacked the 'right' kind of credentials, and this is the typical reaction an 'outsider' receives when it comes knocking at the doors of Academia's ivory tower? Or maybe because they are guilty of associating themselves with someone like Richard Hoagland, who is by now synonymous with kooky claims about Martian civilizations who left the surface of their planet littered with all sorts of pareidolic artifacts?

With regards to the former, you'd think Astronomy would be more welcoming with amateurs, since they have been credited with all sorts of discoveries --e.g. the Shoemaker-Levy comet.

As for the latter, well… there's no getting around the fact that there arepeople in this field who stared at the Void far longer than they should have, and that for every Palermo or Hancock making astounding claims which are still not outside the realm of possibility, there are also folks finding Bigfoot on Mars, or selling Lemurian headbands...

Either an honest mistake or a blatant omission, NASA should do well in crediting people like Efrain Palermo*. Because he's an example that when it comes to space exploration (as with several other fields) it is amateurs --i.e. people not directly associated with government space agencies or academic institutions-- the ones who are now pushing the envelope and helping us expand our horizons.

And it will be amateurs like himself, Zubrin and Elon Musk, the ones which will probably determine our future as a space-faring civilization in the years to come.

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(*) Efrain also happens to be the discoverer of Phobos' monolith; you know, the one Buzz Aldrin was so excited about?

To further know more about Efrain's work on Mars, listen to his interview on The Grimerica Show.

Efrain and Jill England also discussed the recent NASA news last night (Sept. 28) on Richard Hoagland's radio show The Other Side of Midnight.

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UPDATE: In an interview for CNN to discuss NASA's anouncement, Robert Zubrin sets the record straight on the (not-so-recent) discovery of flowing water on Mars, and mentions Palermo et al's work.