Dear visitor (if there is any) please note the following: The blog "Broken Radius" is hosted at Google Blogger's server. I can therefore not guarantee that your visit to the blog or any comment you write wont be recorded by the NSA. If you have any worries about this, you can visit instead my alternative blog Letters-to-a-Persian-Cat. This one is hosted at a European server which hopefully acknowledges visitors privacy.


Accelerating Evolution on Mars

Hello Michael, 
You have probably heard that last week a new mars rover landed succesfully on Mars surface, and how this event was enthusiastically wellcomed by NASA and the entire scientific community. It follows a long series of less brilliant failures to get a working mars robot up there, one that could produce more than just pretty pictures. This new mission of an explorer vehicle called "Couriosity" is officially intended to test the existence of lower forms of life on our neighbor planet. For this purpose, "Couriosity" carries on board a couple of sophisticated devices, some that can take samples from mars' surface or from deeper layers of the ground in order to apply sensitive detection methods for organic molecules, considered to be exclusively produced by living organisms. I am wondering if they are looking there for a sort of blood stains, or some traces of blond hair or spit-out chewing gum.
What makes this new Mars exploration so special (for me as a radiation biologist) is the fact, that the rovers energy supply comes from about 5 kg of plutonium 235, providing 120 W electric energy for at least five years. Thats fine, I would say from an engineers point of view, and I would also like to drive my old Benz with this sort of low-emission, low-cost and low-maintenace type of fuel.
But the radiation-biologist in me (and I hope you agree somehow) has to wonder about the long term consequences of 5 kg plutonium, a potent alpha emitter, if it comes to its mutatgenic effects on living organisms. Assuming the plutonium is accidentally released from the mars rover and evenly spread over the hypothetical mars ecosphere,  it would cause a tremendous rise of the mutation rate in all cells, whether low prokaryotes or in higher and multi-cellular creatures like plants or animals or anything else in between. This means the 5 years mission of the man-made Mars rover will not only explore the presence of live on Mars, but if there is any, it will also drive evolution by increasing the number of new mutants. So scientists will not only be the silent observers, but active players of an extra-terrestrial evolution of life.

I am afraid, that with this man-made mutation burden, the mars creatures will indeed soon look like those in Tim Burtons "Mars Attacks". But for this, we have to blame nobody else than ourself.

I am more than worried now looking up the sky at night. There are not only beautiful meteor showers and the romantic moon, but from now on there might also be a laboratory of accelerated evolution on mars.

Take Care, yours sincerely


  1. Kodoo to Ghazal for this short but impressive write up. I think that is called playing with the things that we tend to ignore.
    good article.

  2. I think that Ghazal should have also considered in her post the possibility, that an intelligent civilisation on Mars (which might now develop much faster, thanks to NASAs plutonium delivery) might buildt up a new religion around the mythological ROVER, how it landed in 2012 on their planet surrounded by fire and light, and how it brought the divine radiation, to help "form" the martians as an mirror image of the CREATORS. Our view that martians (whether little green men or the monster from Tim Burtons movie) are anything else than beautiful images of ourself, might indeed be a very subjective judgement.

  3. Hi Alireza and Michael,
    don't forget that mutations per se have no direction. They just provide fluctuations away from an existing equilibrium of a biological system (in its position in an existing ecosphere). The direction, or what we call evolution, is determined by the requirement of the external world, and its constrictions it bears for the organism to survive and to reproduce. I.e. what you call beautiful (or a mirror image of ourself, the CREATORS) is indeed something totally subjective. If the 5kg plutonium onboard the CURIOSITY rover is indeed spread over the Mars, and if there is currently a primitive form of living organisms, the increased mutation rate will only accelerate evolution, but perhaps not change its direction. So if creatures like those from Tim Burtons "Mars Attack" are the adequate form of life on Mars, they will be there with or without NASAs plutonium delivery.
    By the way, I think it is indeed a big experiment: To investigate the first effects of the plutonium exposure onto MARS' ecosystem, the next probe is planed for 2016 (see here Four years time between the start of the experiment and collection of the first data, thats a bit too long for a PhD project, right. So the idea must have been developed by a postdoc (I knew they are the really evil guys !!!)

  4. I hope the martians don't send the plutonium back to earth, with a note saying "undeliverable: Return to sender". If this will happen, I'm sure the US will blame Tehran and its fierce nuclear program for this. Wasn't there a recent suggestion that IRI has a secret Mars base (

  5. Ghazal Dear, whats about your considerations of other habitable planets (as a place to escape to)? You wrote a while ago ( that Giese-581g, while according to some US astronomers providing good living conditions, would be unacceptable for you, since it is too far away from your family in Stockholm. So would you consider Mars instead (an E-mail from here to there takes only 12 minutes !!),since it might have cheap and frequent flights to and from Stockholm, assuming of course we can do something against the plutonium disposale ?

  6. Don't blame me, please, for circulating conspiracy news: but the long term director of NASAs Mars missions was Firouz Naderi, who holds a PhD from Pahlavi University in Shiraz, Iran. Before he became in charge of the Mars exploration program in 2000, he was responsible for the ORIGINS program of NASA ( The aim of this program was the discovery of extrasolar planets suitable for the development of life.

  7. @Aleph
    Firouz Naderis work at NASA is a great example of the brilliant spirits of many Iranians who are really innovative and are able to develop new ideas in science. As much as I know, he headed NASAs MArs program only until 2005, therefore I dont think the idea to put 5kg 235Pu on board the COURIOSITY rover was his idea. But who knows ;-).