CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- John Brandenburg, a scientist associated with research on the Cydonia landforms of Mars, believes that the Red Planet once teemed with so much life that it now contains massive supplies of oil.
"We have meteorites that say Mars had a history of liquid water much longer than anyone suspected, maybe 2 to 3 billion years, and that it was awash in a rich, organic soup," says Brandenburg, a plasma physicist with the RSI Corporation in Lanham, Maryland.
"What I've discovered is oil shale on Mars. That could make going to Mars the equivalent of purchasing 500 new Alaskas."
Brandenburg's research traces back to 1965, when a geologist named Bartholomew Nagy published his findings on exotic meteorites known as carbonaceous chondrites (abbreviated C1). The extraterrestrial clay-like stones were filled with tarry matter called kerogen, a biological substance found on Earth that resembles oil shale.
Brandenburg, a NASA Advisory Board member on reusable launch vehicles, located the literature on eight CI meteorites, discovered in Africa, India, Antarctica and Europe, and began comparing notes. The result was a paper in the May 1996 Geophysical Research Letters journal assigning the C1 meteorites to Mars, based on oxygen isotopes and noble gases. He says NASA chief Administrator Daniel Goldin encouraged him to continue his research.
"What it means is that early Mars was crawling with life and perhaps supported an Earthlike climate as recently as the Coal Age, maybe 500 million years ago," Brandenburg poses.
"What this means is that Mars suddenly becomes very easy to colonize. Rocket fuel, the production of plastics, food sources -- Mars is a treasure, and making it our 51st state should be our goal."
Richard Hoover, an astrophysicist at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, included Brandenburg's paper during a Society for International Engineering conference last year in San Diego. Hoover is a fence-sitter when it comes to Brandenberg's theories. "He's advanced some arguments that may have merit," he says. "I don't think many people are going to argue that CIs have complex organics. But whether they're from Mars -- that's another matter."
Harold McSween, a University of Tennessee geologist and a leading authority on meteorites, labels the Martian origins of C1 "ludicrous," and says the puzzling meteorites are most likely primitive debris left over from the formation of the solar system.
"When Brandenburg proposed that we have these kinds of meteorites included with Mars samples, he was met with a kind of stunned silence," McSween says. "It goes against how we think meteorites are formed. It's not as controversial as the Face is, but it's... so implausible that most people have ignored it."
Brandenburg's most recent campaign for peer support came last month, when his work was featured in the Martian meteorite section of the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston. He is undeterred by the critics, comparing the intransigence of conventional thinking to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. "When the wall fell, it only seemed to take a few days, but it was crumbling for decades because it was built on a flawed premise," he says.
"Outside of Jerusalem, Mars is the most political piece of real estate in the solar system," Brandenburg adds. "Maybe the only thing we can all agree on is that the Mars story is just going to get bigger and bigger."
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