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Episode 86: Was Mars Murdered?

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Recap: Xenon-129 was discovered in abundance by the Viking landers on Mars. Xenon-129 can only be produced in nuclear reactions, so claims John E. Brandenburg. Ergo, Mars was murdered in a vast nuclear exchange. Or was it?

Puzzler for Episode 86: There is no puzzler in episode 86.

Answer to Puzzler from Episode 85: The ONLY time you can correctly expose both a full moon and thousands of stars in the same, single shot, is during a total lunar eclipse. The moon is very dark during that time, but it's still full. And the photos - which I've done - look pretty neat. It was a bit of a trick answer, but I actually think I've mentioned it before on a much earlier episode.

Q&A: There was no Q&A for this episode.

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Claim: This is a claim put forward in various flavors by various people, but specifically, I'm going to talk about the idea of John E. Brandenburg. He claims that the detection of xenon-129 in Mars' atmosphere is evidence of a massive nuclear explosion, and that the most likely source of that nuclear explosion was a nuclear war either sourced on the planet or launched on it from space.

The Claimed Evidence

That's really the basis for his claim that Mars was murdered: Xenon-129, though there is a tad more to it. As has become the somewhat norm on this podcast, I'll let him explain it in his own words. That way you don't have to listen to me for so long, either. I have a few different versions of him explaining this, and I'm actually going to use a clip from the Dreamland internet radio show - also started by Art Bell, but now taken over by Whitley aliens-had-their-way-with-me-and-I-remind-everyone-of-that-in-every-interview-Striebur: [Clip from Dreamland from July 12, 2012, starting at 29:12, then 33:01]

- JEB: "The simplest hypothesis was that Mars was like Earth in the past. So we were looking at a whole range of information that was gathered by the Viking missions, not just the pictures but also the sampling the atmosphere, sampling the soil, and we found a real anomaly. And that was the Xenon-129 in the atmosphere was incredibly elevated over any other sample, I mean you can sample the solar wind and there 129 and 132, the two main isotopes of Xenon, are-- are the same (and Xenon has like 5 stable isotopes, so it has a nice fingerprint of processes). So you sample the solar wind, you sample Xenon from meteorites. It's all Xenon-129, 132 are in balance; you sample Earth's atmosphere it's in balance. And, you sample like Jupiter's, and apparently it's in balance. So you have all of these -- and apparently Venus -- so you have all of these samples from all of these, but then you sample Mars, 129, it's 2.5 times the level of Xenon-132. And this-- when I showed this to some nuclear weapons specialists, that I was working with, they-- they-- one of them just said, 'Oh my god! This looks like there was a-- a big explosion there!' And it took awhile to find out, but you find out when you delve into secrets on Mars, you start to find into secrets on Earth. Xenon-129 is produced in two types of explosions. One is supernovae, and one is nuclear weapons explosions. It's a fingerprint-- it's the smoke-- it's the gun smoke of a violent, fast nuclear process. It doesn't even get made in a nuclear reactor very much. It's only in a nuclear explosion, like a hydrogen bomb, an atomic bomb. Uh, and it took me awhile to figure out that even though it's in the open literature, it's considered one of the things that Uncle Samy-- one of the cards that Uncle Sam keeps close to his chest because they monitor the Xenon-129 in the atmosphere all the time to see if anyone is setting off nukes, secretly."

- JEB: "So, we found out that the Xenon-129 on-- in the Martian atmosphere is indicative of a VERY LARGE, VERY VIOLENT nuclear explosion, and you kind of have only two ways that could happen. One plausible way, and I did give to a scientific conference and propose, is that a large natural reactor on Mars that went unstable and went uh-- kinda did a Chernobyl. The other is that it was an airburst from, uh, outside of Mars. It was a technological thing. And uh, the only problem with the large nuclear reactor problem is, uh, this a-- this occurred on Earth, there are natural nuclear reactors on Earth operating in Africa, uh, there's every reason to believe this happened on Mars, however this one would have had to have been very large, gone violently unstable, and it left no crater. Because--

- WS: "--there is nothing on Mars to suggest the existence of such a thing, and yet it would have left a very substantial mark--"

- JEB: "--absolutely--"

- WS: "--Unlike an airburst."

- JEB: "The gamma rays, the gamma ray map of Mars in um, uh thorium and potassium, and you can look them up on the internet, and they're in the color section of the book, show a big red spot of activity. ... And this one turns out to be about 500 miles to the West of Cydonia."

- WS: "So John, you're saying that in the past, there was a nuclear explosion on Mars. And you're a man who's in a position to know because of your scientific training. Now, that suggests that it was technological, that it was a mechanical device that exploded, not something natural. That's incredible. Appalling."

Okay, to re-cap, here's the chain of logic: (1) Viking landers observed an over-abundance of xenon-129 relative to xenon-132. (2) According to Brandenburg, xenon-129 is only produced during big nuclear events. (3) It could be natural, like what happened in Africa, or it could be unnatural, ergo Mars was "murdered." (4) Additional evidence are hotspots of thorium and potassium on Mars which he also links to this event.

So, as with any claim, let's go through step-by-step.


Xenon-129 is a stable isotope of Xenon. According to Good-ol'-Wikipedia's "Isotopes of Xenon" and "Xenon" pages, the natural abundance of xenon-129 on Earth is around 26.4% of all xenon, and the ratio of xenon-129 to 132 is just slightly less than 1. Oh, and xenon is a gas, and it comes from a long line of Nobility.

With that intro, now to the claim of it being on Mars. From what I could find, there is a December 1976 paper in the journal Science entitled, "The Atmosphere of Mars: Detection of Krypton and Xenon." The third sentence of the abstract states, "the ratio of xenon-129 to xenon-132 is enhanced on Mars relative to the terrestrial value for this ratio." It goes on to say, "Some possible implications of these findings are discussed."

To be completely honest, I was surprised. I did not expect this to pan out, given perhaps some of my more recent podcast episodes. So, what Viking found is that the ratio of 129 to 132 is not 0.97 as on Earth, but 2.5(+2)(-1) -- significantly more 129 than 132. But, that's as far as I can follow Brandenburg. For a couple reasons. Well, two.

First, I can't find anything about xenon-129 being produced in nuclear explosions. In supernovae, sure, those produce pretty much everything. They're an alchemist's dream. But not a nuclear weapon. The only stuff I could find on the production of xenon-129 is from the decay of radioactive iodine-129 into xenon-129. Iodine-129 has a half-life of about 16 million years, meaning that within 160 million years, less than 0.1% of the original amount of iodine-129 will remain. Meaning that all the iodine-129 originally part of any planet will have decayed by now into xenon-129 unless you're a young-Earth creationist. So, again, problem #1 so far is that unless this is top-secret knowledge or Google has failed me, xenon-129 is not produced in nuclear bombs. Which pretty much is the foundation of his idea.

It's possible he got fooled by the term, "radiogenic" xenon-129, and thought that meant nuclear reactor ... it just means that it's produced by radioactive decay of something else, in this case iodine-129.

It's also possible that his actual claim - even though I've never heard him state it - is that it's iodine-129 that is what's produced in a nuclear bomb, and since that decays into xenon-129, then that's evidence of the iodine-129 which is evidence for his nuclear war. Though I really don't want to make his argument for him, that is one possible way to save his idea. But, the 16 million year half-life of iodine-129 means that this would have had to have happened hundreds of millions of years ago for there to be no iodine-129 left and for it to all have decayed. Possible? I suppose, and I've heard stranger things.

But, the second reason I stop following Brandenburg's ideas at this point is for the same reason that Lawrence Livermore National Lab stated: There are a lot of possible geologic reasons why xenon-129 is more abundant relative to 132 on Mars than on Earth. The Science article points out that some types of stony meteorites have ratios of 4.5 or as high as 9.6, which is much higher than the Mars value, indicating that Mars may be sourced from more of that primitive material than Earth was as those slowly degassed into Mars' environment.

Another model by Musselwhite, Drake, and Swindle from 1990 suggests that the iodine originally incorporated into Mars was outgassed after formation into an atmosphere, but iodine was incorporated into the crust while xenon, being a noble gas, just stayed in the atmosphere. Then, lots of impacts happened in the first 500 million years, eroding Mars' atmosphere significantly including ALL the isotopes of xenon, mostly evenly. Meanwhile, the iodine-129 in the crust is decaying into xenon-129 and very slowly outgassed. As opposed to Earth, where it would be recycled and buried in the mantle due to plate tectonics. And, ¡voilà!, Mars' atmosphere is enriched with xenon-129. No nuclear holocaust needed, and this fits with everything else we know about how the planets work and it's supported by the ratio of argon-40 to krypton-40. The only small issue for this is the timing given the fairly short half-life of iodine-129.

Because of that timing issue, others have come up with other models for how Mars' atmosphere could be enriched in xenon-129. A popular model was proposed by Swindle and Jones in 1997 that proposes Mars started not with an asteroid-like composition, but an atmosphere like the solar wind. This allows a contribution from plutonium-244 -derived xenon-136 to be present which I guess somehow helps the models more accurately produce the xenon observed. And yes, I did say plutonium. Plutonium-244 is a very heavy isotope of plutonium, has a half-life of about 80 million years, and it's plutonium-240 used in nuclear weapons ... 244 is the most stable isotope of plutonium and still found in nature and it is not abundant in nuclear reactors though some is produced in nuclear explosions. So again, while this *could* be sorta used in a very round-about way to support his claims, it's hard to get there from what we know. Not impossible, but very hard.

At the very least, from this discussion of xenon-129, the conclusion that Brandenburg made - that it's only produced during big nuclear events, is not true. It's actually NOT produced in nuclear events - except supernovae - but it *can* be produced as a by-product of what is produced by nuclear weapons or reactors.

Natural Nuclear Reactors

Step 3 of his train of thought, that the xenon-129 could be produced by a natural nuclear reactor, was what he proposed to the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference - also known as LPSC by those of us in the biz - back in 2011. Yes, he actually did submit an abstract about this.

But my point in bringing it up is not to discuss it on Mars, but on Earth. I was first introduced to this idea as an off-hand remark by someone when I was in grad school, and I didn't believe him at first. But yes indeed, nuclear reactors can happen on planets, naturally. This happened in Oklo in Gabon, Africa, about 1.7 billion years ago, it lasted for a few hundred thousand years, and it averaged about 100 kW of power during that time. To put that in context, my Mac setup from 2008 is currently using about 0.35 kW, or about 0.4% of that reactor. So it's not a trivial amount, but it's also not gargantuan.

How this happens is pretty neat, and it was first predicted in 1956, and the one in Africa was discovered in 1972 by French physicist Francis Perrin.

What happened was that a large deposit of uranium started to accumulate groundwater. Water acts as a neutron moderator, slowing down neutrons and making fast neutrons into thermal neutrons, capable of sustaining a nuclear chain reaction of uranium-235. So, uranium, plus water, and a nuclear chain reaction took place. Periods of the water boiling away, the reaction stopping, water coming back, and the reaction starting again happened and lasted long periods of times, each.

What let this happen 1.7 billion years ago and why this probably CAN'T happen today on Earth is that uranium-235 had an abundance of about 3.1% relative to all the uranium there. The rest was uranium-238, which isn't fissile. The 3.1% is around what we enrich uranium to today for use in nuclear power plants.

The reason this can't happen naturally on Earth today is that uranium-235 decays faster than 238, having a half-life of about 700 million years versus about 4.5 billion years. So, the natural abundance is only 0.7% today relative to 238, as opposed to the higher 3.1% about 2 billion years ago.

So that's a kinda neat aside.

Potassium and Thorium

The final piece of evidence claimed is the maps of potassium and thorium, though I'm really not sure why. Potassium is a common element, and while thorium might be rarer, and theoretically used in thorium reactors, but he doesn't really give a reason why these are important. Yeah, they're also sorta correlated in where they are on the planet, but a very, very length paper with over a dozen authors was published in 2007 using this as evidence for water carrying rocks to the lowest portion of the planet, draining into a northern hemisphere ocean, which is where the largest concentrations of potassium and thorium are.

Other Brandenburg Things

So that's really about it for Mars being murdered. Far as I can tell, he's making a basic claim with a couple lines of real evidence but that evidence doesn't actually imply what he says it does.

And, I've managed to go through all that without mentioning that he's a Face on Mars guy. It's how he got started. In fact, I used a Coast to Coast clip of him back in my two-parter at the beginning of the year on the Face on Mars. I don't mean to poison the well by going into this, but now that I've shown that the evidence does not really support his ideas, at least not nearly as strongly as he claims, then I can get into a bit more context about the man.

So, he's a Face on Mars guy. And, along with that, a conspiracist about UFOs and government cover-ups, which you kinda have to be if you're a Face on Mars guy.

He also makes some factual claims which are demonstrably wrong. This is gratuitous to Mars, but for example, he claimed that Napoleon's soldiers shot off the nose of the Sphinx with a canon. In true yes-man fashion, George Noory replied, "That's right." Too bad the Arab historian, al-Marqrizi, who wrote in the 1400s - as in several hundred years before Napoleon - that it was a person in 1378 who removed the Sphinx's nose.

And, one more thing: Brandenburg claims in every interview that I've heard of his that he is the guy who originally came up with the idea of there being an ocean on Mars: [Clip from Dreamland from July 12, 2012, starting at 3:37]

- JEB: "I was in fact the, uh, first person to propose at a scientific conference the uh, ocean of Mars, the paleo-ocean of Mars."

- WS: "Which is now pretty much an accepted reality."

- JEB: "I know, but they don't give me any credit ... I'm radioactive with Cydonia."

- WS: "Right."

Except he wasn't. He proposed this in 1986. I can see why he may have been confused because that's about when this was really hitting the literature, but I found several abstracts and papers and maps at least dating to 1985, the year before him, suggesting that an ocean existed on Mars.

Summing Up

This episode took longer to write than I expected. That's probably because Brandenburg is not your typical pseudoscientist. He actually knows mostly what he's talking about, so long as you ignore the UFO and Face on Mars stuff and the arrogance of claiming to solve problems Einstein couldn't. But with this stuff, it took a fair amount of research on my part, searching and reading through a dozen papers to find out the little details that point to why he's wrong as opposed to it being something obvious, which is normally the case with topics I talk about on the podcast, like Venus sprouting from Jupiter.

And that's perhaps the more dangerous kind. He SEEMS like he knows what he's talking about, even though it seems crazy. But, for someone to actually investigate why he's wrong takes a lot of searching and specialized knowledge. I'm actually a little surprised that his ideas haven't caught on more in the pseudoscience circles I follow.

Provide Your Comments:

Comments to date: 7. Page 1 of 1. Average Rating:

heinland   jhu

10:08pm on Sunday, November 30th, 2014 

Hi Dr. John Brandenburg,

You may have just recently found out about the vitrified soil, but the link you provided was from 2011. It also proposes that the vitrified soil was from volcanic activity. You then further attempt to connect this to your hypothesis by saying it's "similar to Trinitite." Most of the Trinitite on earth is fake Trinitite from volcanic activity as many collectors have found out. The only way to verify real Trinitite is through Gamma spectroscopy. Where's the link to the Gamma spectroscopy tests of the soil?

Stuart R   Lyons, CO, USA

12:08am on Saturday, November 29th, 2014

John, you and I had an extensive e-mail train in October-November of last year (2013). Here was my last response to you regarding xenon-129:

So, xenon-129 *could* be made in a nuclear fission weapon, just by virtue that it's a high-energy explosion and you have a bunch of neutrons running around (to put it flippantly). Let's say for the temporary sake of argument that you are correct about its production from a nuclear weapon on Mars. Two questions immediately come to mind, then. First, what about other radioactive nuclides produced? Should we not see enhancements of those? And should they not all be correlated with the blast site(s?). Second, where is the blast site? What are you claiming the yield would have to be so we could figure out what sized crater to look for? It didn't make it into the podcast episode, but I think you claimed that Lyot crater was the result ... the problem for that is we have a decent age for Lyot's formation at roughly 3.5 Ga. When a... read more »

john e. brandenburg   Madison WI

8:50pm on Monday, November 24th, 2014 

Dear Exposer of Pseudo-astronomy,

A small tutorial on xenon 129, xenon 129 is the major portion of a xenon component in the earth's atmosphere that has appeared since 1945. You can look this up in the book "Mars" , published in 1992 by U. of Arizona press with Kieffer et al as editors,on page 127. This component is due to fission with fast neutrons from nuclear testing and plutonium production- a major industry on this planet. When you fission nuclei with fast neutrons the mass distribution of fission fragments changes from the classic "double hump" , from fission caused by thermal neutrons, with a peak near atomic weight 90 and another near 137 with a deep valley in between, to a single big peak for fission induced by high energy neutrons E> 14MeV ( from fusion) look up images of fission product spectra, they are all over the web.
or you can even read my published article in Journal of Cosmology

Also vitrified soil... read more »

Sebastian G.   Wiesbaden, Germany

6:40pm on Monday, March 3rd, 2014 

If the nuclear blast hypothesis was the only logical explanation for the observed levels in Xenon-129 (which it is not, given the fact that Xe-129 is not a direct product in a nuclear bomb blast, a detail that someone with a PhD in theoretical plasma physics should be aware of) then I guess you'd have a point there, andy.

However, being only one of a handful of suggested explanations and being the only one that is based on the assumption that Mars was, at one point in the distant past, the scene of a nuclear armed conflict between at least two warring groups requiring the presence of at least one or more space age civilizations at that time, an assumption that is not backed by any factual data, makes this far fetched hypothesis fair game for Ockham's merciless Razor and it can thus be disregarded and abandoned as the big load of bollocks that it is.

On a side note: I happened to have the dubious honor of being the translator of the German edition of Brandenburg's "Dead Mars, Dyin... read more »

andy   california

12:32am on Saturday, February 22nd, 2014 

Dude, you haven't refuted anything. Do some more research. Take a look at imagery of Mare Acidalium, I think an air-burst of a nuclear device is quite plausible. If vitrified soil is found there, that could be another piece of evidence to support the theory.

Stuart R   Lyons, CO, USA

11:31am on Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

If your biggest issue with this is that I said as a side-note that plutonium-240 is used in weapons instead of -239, I'll take it.

robin   massachusetts

6:52am on Wednesday, February 19th, 2014 

putonium 239 is the fissile isotope used in nuclear weapons and fuel. plutonium 240 limits the fissile properties. if you are in the business of refuting pseudoscience try to get your own facts correct!!

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