Vol. 2, Issue 3, January 20, 2004
NASA Rover finds Olestra in Martian Soil
The Mars Spirit rover has completed its first chemical analysis of Martian soil, and the results are unexpected, to say the least.
"We were looking for substances such as iron-bearing carbonates," said Steven Squyres of Cornell University, the mission's lead scientist. "We certainly weren't expecting to find an ester made from sugar and fatty acids. It's both an exciting and a rather disturbing finding."
Early analyses seem to confirm that Spirit has indeed found that the topsoil near the landing site does in fact contain a substance commonly known as olestra, the fat substitute patented by Proctor and Gamble and marketed as Olean. This is the first time olestra has been found in a natural setting.
"My first thought was that the engineers got a little sloppy with the snacks while packing up the Spirit lander for launch," said Squyres. "But initial analyses indicate the quantity of olestra in the soil far exceeds that which could have been accidentally introduced by the rover. Spirit would have had to cart in half a ton of Pringles to reach these levels."
Spirit and its twin, Opportunity, which is scheduled to arrive on Mars eight days from now, are packed with some powerful instruments, all carefully chosen to support NASA's "follow the water" strategy for finding evidence of a life-support system, if not life itself, on Mars. Each of the 384-pound rovers is equipped with nine cameras and two spectrometers, which are used to measure the chemical composition of materials. The olestra was discovered using the Mössbauer Spectrometer.
"The big question that this raises, of course" said media analyst Chuck Stodmeyer, "is how it affects Proctor and Gamble's olestra patents."
Proctor and Gamble accidentally created olestra in 1968 and spent 25 years and $200 million dollars on research and health studies. Olestra tastes and has the texture of fat, but is not digested. It is a sucrose (double sugar) esterized with five to eight fatty acids. Although it has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use as a food additive, negative publicity surrounding possible gastrointestinal side effects have hampered its success.
"We have already been informed by Proctor and Gamble's lawyers that the use of any olestra found in Martian soil would constitute unlawful patent infringement," said Squyres. "NASA did not actually have a model in place for mining or utilizing this substance on Mars, but I guess we're glad Proctor and Gamble cleared this up for us."
The implications of the finding are still inconclusive. However, some view it as a blow to the underlying search for life on the Martian surface, whether or not water is eventually discovered.
"It is troubling," said Squyres. "We were worried about trace metals that could be toxic to lungs, and dust affecting electronic devices like computers and vehicles that humans will need on Mars. We were also concerned that dust and soil could have the potential to develop electric charges. But the olestra raises the question of whether Mars is fit for human habitation at all."