Doubts on Martian Formaldehyde

by Paul Gilster on February 25, 2005

Oliver Morton’s excellent MainlyMartian weblog has a cautionary analysis of Vittorio Formisano’s work on Martian formaldehyde, which we looked at on the 18th. From the weblog:

I’ve posted on the formaldehyde story before. And, even more now than then, I think Formisano is making a mistake…[S]o do a number (quite possibly, from what I hear, all) of his colleagues on the PFS, including those who have more experience modelling atmospheric chemistry and interpreting spectrometer data than Formisano has. I don’t want to rehash everything in the earlier post on the subject, but the gist is that a) formaldehyde is expected to have a very short lifetime in the atmosphere, and thus it is very hard to explain how there could be so much of it and b) earth-based telescopes have looked for the stuff and found no evidence for it even at levels far lower than those that Formisano appears to see.

You can read Morton’s comments here. He has also written thoughtfully on the ‘Elysium Sea’ (the possible Martian pack ice in the Cerberus Fossae region). MainlyMartian is highly recommended reading.

Also, the Australian Broadcasting Company offers a story on Formisano’s work here (thanks to Larry Klaes for the pointer). Quoting Australian geologist Marion Anderson:

While few scientists before today will have seen Formisano’s full data, much of the concern so far has been over the ability of the instrument he is using to specifically pick up the presence of formaldehyde’s absorption spectra.

“They occur at exactly the same wavelength as a number of other very common gases on Mars so a lot of people aren’t 100% sure that what he’s found is formaldehyde,” says Anderson. “It’s literally reading between the lines, in some cases.”

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