Viking landers did detect organics on Mars

Jan 06, 2011 by Lin Edwards report
A boulder-strewn field of red rocks stretches across the horizon in this self-portrait of Viking 2 on Mars' Utopian Plain. (3 September 1976) Image: NASA

(PhysOrg.com) -- In 1976 the NASA Viking landers took samples of soil on Mars and tested them for signs of organic carbon. A reinterpretation of the results now suggests the samples did contain organic compounds, but the results were not understood because of the strong oxidation effects of perchlorate, a salt now known to be found in Martian soils.

In the Viking tests the Martian was heated sufficiently to vaporize in the soil and the resultant gases and vapors were analyzed by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. Chlorohydrocarbons were found at landing site 1 and 2, but they were dismissed at the time as terrestrial contaminants, even though they were not found at the same levels in blank runs. Then, in 2008 the Phoenix lander discovered perchlorate in the Martian arctic soil. Perchlorates are well known as powerful oxidizing compounds that combust organics, but their presence in Martian soils was not suspected in the 1970s.

After the Martian soils were found to contain perchlorates, scientists from Ciudad Universitaria in Mexico City, and ’s Space Science Division at Moffett Field, California, decided to test the soils of the Atacama Desert in Chile, which is considered more like Mars than anywhere else on Earth.

The research, reported in the Journal of Geophysical Research, found that when soil samples containing organic carbon were mixed with magnesium and then heated, the same kind of combusted chlorohydrocarbons were found as had been detected on Mars by the Viking lander and dismissed as contaminants.

Reinterpreting the Viking results in the light of the new findings suggests the samples from landing site 1 contained 1.5 to 6.5 ppm organic carbon, while those from landing site 2 contained 0.7 to 2.6 ppm organic carbon.

The presence of organic material does not provide evidence of life or past life on Mars but only of the presence of . NASA is now planning a new mission for November 2011 to have another look for organics and other chemicals on Mars in an effort to better understand the chemistry of Martian soils.

Explore further: SpaceX launches supplies to space station

More information: Navarro‐González, R., E. Vargas, J. de la Rosa, A. C. Raga, and C. P. McKay (2010), Reanalysis of the Viking results suggests perchlorate and organics at midlatitudes on Mars, J. Geophys. Res., 115, E12010, doi:10.1029/2010JE003599

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User comments : 33

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Quantum_Conundrum
1.3 / 5 (33) Jan 06, 2011
Riiiight...It just took 35 years to "re-interpret" the results.
NotAsleep
5 / 5 (20) Jan 06, 2011
It actually took less than two, since the perchlorates were discovered in 2008
Shootist
4 / 5 (21) Jan 06, 2011
Dude that designed the experiment , and fought for years to get a re-interpretation, needs to win the Nobel.

QC, son, you're getting old real fast. Go play at freerepublic, they appreciate luddites.
CSharpner
5 / 5 (8) Jan 06, 2011
Riiiight...It just took 35 years to "re-interpret" the results.

Nope. They weren't working on it for 35 years. They looked at it in the 70's, then again recently.
mysticshakra
1.3 / 5 (24) Jan 06, 2011
Bunch if lyin weasels. They knew what they had with Hiking and chose to sweep it under the rug. They lied to us, just like they lied to us about the face.
Terrible_Bohr
4.7 / 5 (12) Jan 06, 2011
Bunch if lyin weasels. They knew what they had with Hiking and chose to sweep it under the rug. They lied to us, just like they lied to us about the face.


You know that car manufacturers are aware of the shape of the grills of the cars they produce, knowing that people get the vague impression of a face from them in conjuction with the headlights. Humans see faces where they actually aren't.

As for the reevaluation of the soil, the information that there are some organic compounds for life on Mars isn't likely to send mobs into the streets.

You take take off the tin foil hat.
trekgeek1
5 / 5 (14) Jan 06, 2011
There's nothing dishonest about acquiring new knowledge and using this new knowledge to reinterpret old data. In fact, to not do so would be dishonest. I'm sure those who do not believe life can begin elsewhere in the universe would complain if new information that made the generation of life more improbable wasn't applied to old experiments that support the generation of life. This is simply the way you approach the right answer.
Quantum_Conundrum
2 / 5 (16) Jan 06, 2011
I really don't care whether there's "organic compounds" on Mars.

I want to colonize the thing. Whatever critters may, or may not have been there in the past.

I once calculated that if we used fully contained environments for biodomes to live in and produce food and a stable ecosystem, and we use solar power, that Mar's maximum sustainable human population, based solely on available solar energy, would be somewhere between 135 million and 337.5 million humans, plus all plant and animal life proportionate to earth biosphere vs earth human population. This number assumed the Earth was already at max sustainable population, which it really isn't.

I calculated the amount of renewable solar energy available on Mars as a percentage of that available on earth, and figure it is somewhere between 2% and 5% across the entire surface of the planet, taking into consideration Mars' smaller disk size and much larger distance from the Sun.
desotojohn
4 / 5 (2) Jan 06, 2011
trekgeek1 - Very well said!
Quantum_Conundrum
1.4 / 5 (16) Jan 06, 2011
So all told, if you cover the entire surface of Mars with solar panels and use this energy to power fully contained environments, you should have a max perpetually sustainable population of 2% to 5% of what the earth's max perpetually sustainable population would be.

It is far more important to my mind to focus on human civilization and colonization of space, rather than some insignificant microbes, if any of such things even exist. It is highly unlikely any such creatures would be in any way similar to earth life anyway. Sorry, Peter Pan-spermia believers, it didn't happen. Get over it.
jlslbca
4.3 / 5 (3) Jan 06, 2011
As I understand it, there were three experiments on the Vikings:
#1. the gold standard for testing for bacterial contamination in water supplies lit up like a christmas tree.
#2 failed
#3 (this one) failed also.
#2 was later proven to be 2 orders of magnitude too insensitive to do the job and #3 has just been demonstrated to have actually found carbon compounds. NASA officials voted 2 out of 3 say "no Life" back then, what's the story now?.
Does anyone know where this whole 3-experiment deal is written up today, with hindsight?
Eric_B
2 / 5 (1) Jan 06, 2011
"You take take off the tin foil hat."

Yeah, really. There is much better evidence for "weird" and unexplained stuff during the Apollo missions.
sstritt
3.1 / 5 (9) Jan 06, 2011
Bunch if lyin weasels. They knew what they had with Hiking and chose to sweep it under the rug. They lied to us, just like they lied to us about the face.

I thought the tin foil hat crowd was of the opinion that the Moon and Mars landings were done in a Hollywood sound stage.
Terrible_Bohr
5 / 5 (5) Jan 06, 2011
I meant to say you can take off your hat. The one time I don't have time to proofread, I get quoted...

I thought the tin foil hat crowd was of the opinion that the Moon and Mars landings were done in a Hollywood sound stage.


Tin foil hats prevent mind-reading from aliens, governments, and other evil organizations. I don't think it's limited to allegedly faked space missions.
deatopmg
1.8 / 5 (13) Jan 06, 2011
@jlslbca

Not only did one of the Viking experiments clearly indicate life w/ diurnal emission of C14 CO2 for 45 (forty five!!!) days after inoculation of soil w/ nutrient broth BUT a series of photos of one of the arms digging a trench first shows a rock like object being struck and broken by the arm. In subsequent photos a liquid can clearly be seen flowing from the center of the break in the larger piece of "rock". ???? What did Viking 1 and 2 really find?

NOTE that according to the public record NO LIFE DETECTING SYSTEM SUCH AS THE VIKING'S GC-MASS SPEC HAS EVER BEEN FLOWN ON SUBSEQUENT MISSIONS TO MARS. (The thermal oven on the Phoenix doesn't count unless...it was more than a thermal oven.)

WHY no life detecting systems? NASA either knew for sure there is life or they knew for sure that Mars was sterile.

Is anything going on that we, the paying public, should know about?
Skepticus_Rex
3.7 / 5 (15) Jan 06, 2011
There is no face on Mars. Poorer quality imaging cams, signal to noise ratio loss, and shadowing all "conspired" and made it look like a face.

I think it is great news that the data got a reinterpretation. I look forward to reading the report.

Regarding tinfoil hats, Google "Faraday Cage." :)
Objectivist
5 / 5 (13) Jan 06, 2011
WHY no life detecting systems? NASA either knew for sure there is life or they knew for sure that Mars was sterile.
Or--just or--it wasn't as easy as crazy gluing a home pregnancy test to the rocket. Perhaps the cost of the equipment was too high and the expectations of any results were too low. Perhaps they figured they had more important tests to do with better chances of usable data. But no, you're right, it has to be a conspiracy. Obviously there are no other viable scenarios. Why don't you try ranting about it on the internet with some random capitalization? That'll teach NASA for being such meanies.
shadfurman
4.2 / 5 (5) Jan 06, 2011
@jlslbca

Not only did one of the Viking experiments clearly indicate life w/ diurnal emission of C14 CO2 for 45 (forty five!!!) days after inoculation of soil w/ nutrient broth BUT a series of photos of one of the arms digging a trench first shows a rock like object being struck and broken by the arm. In subsequent photos a liquid can clearly be seen flowing from the center of the break in the larger piece of "rock". ???? What did Viking 1 and 2 really find?

NOTE that according to the public record NO LIFE DETECTING SYSTEM SUCH AS THE VIKING'S GC-MASS SPEC HAS EVER BEEN FLOWN ON SUBSEQUENT MISSIONS TO MARS. (The thermal oven on the Phoenix doesn't count unless...it was more than a thermal oven.)

WHY no life detecting systems? NASA either knew for sure there is life or they knew for sure that Mars was sterile.

Is anything going on that we, the paying public, should know about?


PICS OR IT DIDN'T HAPPEN!
Skepticus_Rex
3.2 / 5 (11) Jan 06, 2011
It is not true that systems capable of spectrometry have not been sent on succeeding missions. That is a conspiracist myth. One was sent up on board the ill-fated Mars Polar Lander.

In fact, there is one currently functioning on the Mars Odyssey Orbiter. It is a Gamma-Ray Spectrometer capable of even detecting water at subsurface levels on Mars. That device has been quite busy facilitating gathering of all sorts of interesting data.

Another one of a related but better type, complete with thermal ovens, went up in the Phoenix mission on the Lander. TEGA is sensitive to as low as 10 ppb (parts per billion) and was to give very precise measurements of volatiles in the samples even so far as detecting differing isotopes of various elements relating to life. This device is specifically designed to detect the remains of the processes of life, if any were there. Sadly, that lander failed.

I am sure there will be more.
Skepticus_Rex
2.6 / 5 (10) Jan 06, 2011
Whoops! One thing I neglected to note but felt I should before some conspiracist picks this up and misuses it.

While the Lander failed after a rather damaging Martian winter (solar panels appear to be cracked), it did manage to relay some interesting data. It actually outlived its planned lifetime, so I would not class the mission as an actual failure. I should have used a better word. The data has been transmitted. Analysis of the data is ongoing.
yyz
5 / 5 (5) Jan 07, 2011
"it did manage to relay some interesting data. It actually outlived its planned lifetime, so I would not class the mission as an actual failure. I should have used a better word."

How about (highly) successful! ;)

As you pointed out, Phoenix survived 2 months beyond its nominal 90-day mission (and was not expected to survive the Martian winter in any case).

Perchlorates in the Martian soil and the existence of water ice near the surface are among the many discoveries from this mission: "h" ttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenix_(spacecraft)#Results_of_the_mission

"It is not true that systems capable of spectrometry have not been sent on succeeding missions. That is a conspiracist myth. One was sent up on board the ill-fated Mars Polar Lander."

Quite true. In fact, the design of the TEGA instrument onboard Phoenix was based on experience gained from the unsuccessful Mars Polar Lander.
mysticshakra
1 / 5 (12) Jan 07, 2011
There is no face on Mars. Poorer quality imaging cams, signal to noise ratio loss, and shadowing all "conspired" and made it look like a face.


Right, cause the first thing you do when you don't find something is lie about it.

It was stated that there was a second picture taken of the face a few hours later and the effect was gone. This was a blatant lie as that hemisphere was in darkness by the next orbit. The second picture to be taken wasn't taken for another month. You would not seed a lie like this unless you were intentionally trying to deceive people and cause them ignore the original photo.

And let's not forget the D&M pyramid.
Terrible_Bohr
5 / 5 (9) Jan 07, 2011
It was stated that there was a second picture taken of the face a few hours later and the effect was gone. This was a blatant lie as that hemisphere was in darkness by the next orbit. The second picture to be taken wasn't taken for another month. You would not seed a lie like this unless you were intentionally trying to deceive people and cause them ignore the original photo.

As dubious as your crankery sounds, it doesn't even matter. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's photos from 2006 show that the this is, in fact, a naturally-sculpted rock.

And let's not forget the D&M pyramid.

And let's not forget about wind erosion, which makes similar structures on Earth. Of course, newer photos show these "pyramids" are hardly up to Egyptian standards anyway.
mjesfahani
3 / 5 (1) Jan 08, 2011
Very good research and thanks to the researchers :)
Shootist
3.3 / 5 (7) Jan 08, 2011
It was stated that there was a second picture taken of the face a few hours later and the effect was gone. This was a blatant lie as that hemisphere was in darkness by the next orbit. The second picture to be taken wasn't taken for another month. You would not seed a lie like this unless you were intentionally trying to deceive people and cause them ignore the original photo.

As dubious as your crankery sounds, it doesn't even matter. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's photos from 2006 show that the this is, in fact, a naturally-sculpted rock.

And let's not forget the D&M pyramid.

And let's not forget about wind erosion, which makes similar structures on Earth. Of course, newer photos show these "pyramids" are hardly up to Egyptian standards anyway.


Damn Richard Hoagland's eyes, anyway!
BS_detector
4.4 / 5 (5) Jan 08, 2011
Quantum conundrum writes: 'I calculated the amount of renewable solar energy available on Mars as a percentage of that available on earth, and figure it is somewhere between 2% and 5% across the entire surface of the planet, taking into consideration Mars' smaller disk size and much larger distance from the Sun.'

Wow. Well of course you calculated it, that's why it's wrong! Its a fairly simple calculation, here we go...

Mars is 1.5 times further from the sun than the Earth, so receives 1/2.25 of the light per unit area than the Earth. It's around half the diameter of the Earth, so has 1/4 of the surface area (actually 28% of Earths). That makes for 11% not '2% to 5%' you complete and utter moron!
jcwayne
4 / 5 (4) Jan 08, 2011
As interesting as all of this is, (in the minds of the general public) anything other than pictures of a living creature proves only that a wide variety of chemicals exist on another planet.

I hope to see the beginnings of large scale colonies in space or on another planet within my lifetime (50-75 years). In order for that to happen, in my judgement, either we need to find definitive proof of current ET life in our solar system (igniting sufficient public interest in space to push governments to fund more ambitious missions) or some commercially viable space-based industry needs to take hold. Personally I'd prefer the latter, but either will do.
LariAnn
1 / 5 (3) Jan 10, 2011
@jcwayne,
What is needed, IMHO, is the development of a technology that will enable older folks to say to the young'uns -"Go to space, young man, go to space!" Make it available for people to "stake a claim" on the Moon, Mars or an asteroid. The bottom line is that the effort won't be expended until people see a viable chance to obtain more freedom, more money, or both, out of the effort. Yes, many folks might die trying along the way, just as they did when going west, but many more will make it and set up outposts. Only then will space colonization begin in earnest. So long as space exploration remains the exclusive purview of governments or government funded scientific organizations, space colonization won't happen.
TheWalrus
5 / 5 (2) Jan 12, 2011
Why would NASA cover up evidence of life on Mars? Life on Mars would get them more funding than finding gold on the Moon. The public would be overwhelmingly in favor of giving them all the funds they want. The conspiracy theory of an alleged cover-up of life on Mars makes no sense whatsoever, and speaks volumes about the intellectual and emotional handicaps these poor souls must suffer from.
TheWalrus
1 / 5 (2) Jan 12, 2011
Also, if we do discover life on Mars, I hope we declare the entire planet a critically threatened habitat, and absolutely forbid colonization. We've done enough damage to Earth and don't need to go wiping out another entire planet with our over-reaching arrogance.
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (5) Jan 13, 2011
Also, if we do discover life on Mars, I hope we declare the entire planet a critically threatened habitat, and absolutely forbid colonization. We've done enough damage to Earth and don't need to go wiping out another entire planet with our over-reaching arrogance.


*snicker*

Good luck with that one...
J-n
not rated yet Jan 13, 2011
It is far more important to my mind to focus on human civilization and colonization of space, rather than some insignificant microbes, if any of such things even exist. It is highly unlikely any such creatures would be in any way similar to earth life anyway. Sorry, Peter Pan-spermia believers, it didn't happen. Get over it.


I understand and agree with getting all of our eggs out of one basket so to speak. There are some issues with your assumptions i suspect.

First you assume that all life on mars, if any is there, is dead and long gone.

Then you assume that if there is life there it will not be similar to earth life.

.. and then.. you assume that it wouldn't be scientifically and religiously important.

First, we have no idea if life still exists on mars. If it does, going in and destroying all life there just to house a few hundred million more humans when we could just have fewer offspring seems a little silly.
J-n
not rated yet Jan 13, 2011
Second if life does exist on mars, and is completely different from human life, this still does not invalidate the idea of pan-spermia. It would actually lend further creedence to the idea as we would know there is other life out there that could have possibly produced the life here.

.. and then..

If we were to find life on mars, long dead or thriving, it would rock most religions to their core, possibly causing the dissolution of at least a few. At the VERY least it would force a reassessment of religons world wide (is my god the same god of mars? an all knowing god would know we would eventually find the life on mars, why not tell us about it in the religous text we have? ETC ETC)

QC.. I beg of you to think a bit more before you speak on these issues.. you just end up sounding silly.. which is not your goal (i suspect).

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