Is this proof of life on Mars?

Apr 13, 2012 by Jason Major, Universe Today
View of Mars from Viking 2 lander, September 1976. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Curiosity rover is currently on its way to Mars, scheduled to make a dramatic landing within Gale Crater in mid-August and begin its hunt for the geologic signatures of a watery, life-friendly past. Solid evidence that large volumes of water existed on Mars at some point would be a major step forward in the search for life on the Red Planet.

But… has it already been found? Some scientists say yes.

Researchers from universities in Los Angeles, California, Tempe, Arizona and Siena, Italy have published a paper in the International Journal of Aeronautical and Space Sciences (IJASS) citing the results of their work with data obtained by NASA’s Viking mission.

The twin Viking 1 and 2 landers launched in August and September of 1975 and successfully landed on in July and September of the following year. Their principal mission was to search for life, which they did by digging into the ruddy Martian soil looking for signs of respiration — a signal of biological activity.

The results, although promising, were inconclusive.

Now, 35 years later, one team of researchers claims that the Viking landers did indeed detect life, and the data’s been there all along.

A six-inch-deep trench in the Martian soil dug by Viking 1 in February 1977. The goal was to reach a foot below the surface for sampling.

“Active soils exhibited rapid, substantial gas release,” the  team’s report states. “The gas was probably CO2 and, possibly, other radiocarbon-containing gases.”

By applying mathematical complexities to the Viking data for deeper analysis, the researchers found that the Martian samples behaved differently than a non-biological control group.

“Control responses that exhibit relatively low initial order rapidly devolve into near-random noise, while the active experiments exhibit higher initial order which decays only slowly,” the paper states. “This suggests a robust biological response.”

While some critics of the findings claim that such a process of identifying has not yet been perfected — not even here on Earth — the results are certainly intriguing… enough to bolster support for further investigation into data and perhaps re-evaluate the historic mission’s “inconclusive” findings.

The team’s paper can be found here.

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User comments : 21

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deatopmg
1 / 5 (14) Apr 13, 2012
In spite of this interesting finding, the question remains: Why hasn't NASA sent ANY followup but far more advanced life detecting technology to Mars in the past 35 years?? Or have they?

Photo's from Viking 1 & 2 seem to show higher life forms too.

What do NASA/JPL/MSSS really know?
SoylentGrin
1.7 / 5 (6) Apr 13, 2012
This has always bothered me. The rudimentary experiments Viking performed to test for life were deemed "inconclusive" at the time, and rather than repeat the experiments, or develop new ones, every rover and probe sent since have been incapable of life detection. Sent by NASA, anyway. The two probes sent by other agencies that would have been able to detect microbes either crashed on Mars or went AWOL on launch.
Shoss
3.7 / 5 (3) Apr 13, 2012
Won't the latest rover, Mars Science Laboratory, be able to detect life? I seem to remember reading that. Here's hoping it won't crash into the surface.
SoylentGrin
5 / 5 (4) Apr 13, 2012
Quote from a news article:

"Mars Science Lab, nicknamed Curiosity, isn't a life-detection mission like Viking. Rather, it is intended to chemically analyze the landing site known as Gale Crater for habitats that could have supported life, or possibly still can."

Stop looking around the edges, NASA, and just send a freaking microscope!
SoylentGrin
3.1 / 5 (7) Apr 13, 2012
It's almost like they are purposely trying to build in wriggle room, rather than conducting conclusive experiments.
pauljpease
5 / 5 (8) Apr 13, 2012
It's almost like they are purposely trying to build in wriggle room, rather than conducting conclusive experiments.


There is no such thing as a "conclusive" negative result. If they sent the best possible equipment almost guaranteed to detect life if it was present, and it still didn't detect any, that still would not be conclusive proof that there is no life on Mars. Maybe they were just looking in the wrong crater, or not deep enough in the soil, etc. I'm a scientist and right now I am acutely aware of the difficulty of negative results, my experiments all show that the proteins I'm studying DON'T do something, which is essentially meaningless because since they don't do anything I can't say anything conclusive. Maybe I'm just doing the experiment wrong, or a reagent is not working properly, etc.
SoylentGrin
5 / 5 (5) Apr 13, 2012
Of course, you're right.
I guess what I'm lamenting is that although you can't prove a negative, you could prove a positive result. A microscope could conclusively verify a positive result, but would not rule out the existence of life if a negative result came up. (wrong sample, etc.)
What they have are experiments that could hint at past or present life, but nothing to confirm it, even if the results of the tests all point 100% to the existence of life. It seems silly to NOT include a test that could conclusively verify the existence if all results point that way, especially if the equipment to verify a result could be put to use in other ways as well.
baudrunner
2.2 / 5 (6) Apr 13, 2012
Methane and carbon in general is found in abundance throughout the cosmos, as evidenced by their spectral signatures, and are found pretty much anywhere you point a telescope, so it's not surprising that carbon dioxide is released when digging around in Martian soil. Methanogens, which are life forms of the archae variety, which are anaerobic life forms, are probably digesting away the ferrite sub-strata deep within the Mertian crust, producing oil and natural gas as waste products. Titan's atmosphere rains down tholins on its surface, which has enough hydro-carbon based volatiles in just one of its great lakes to surpass all the "fossil" fuel reserves ever pumped or estimated to have been formed here on Earth.
Jonseer
2 / 5 (6) Apr 13, 2012
What I find odd is that with all the missions sent since the viking lander, we haven't tried to repeat the experiment in any way.
Anda
3.3 / 5 (4) Apr 13, 2012

Photo's from Viking 1 & 2 seem to show higher life forms too.

What do NASA/JPL/MSSS really know?


Sure! I see clearly a rose elephant and a flying donkey in this photo :)
Conspiracy! Obama is a martian!
Vendicar_Decarian
0.3 / 5 (39) Apr 13, 2012
$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
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"In spite of this interesting finding, the question remains: Why hasn't NASA sent ANY followup but far more advanced life detecting technology to Mars in the past 35 years??" - Klamdopatforniplotz
Milou
1 / 5 (2) Apr 14, 2012
There is life on mars. It is called robotics (at least now there is)!
evropej
1 / 5 (8) Apr 14, 2012
In spite of this interesting finding, the question remains: Why hasn't NASA sent ANY followup but far more advanced life detecting technology to Mars in the past 35 years?? Or have they?

Photo's from Viking 1 & 2 seem to show higher life forms too.

What do NASA/JPL/MSSS really know?


We are not doing much of anything thanks to the oblabla administration shutting space programs down. Like they said, wait for some private company to do this research now. You know, the kind of company which outsources all the work to low cost countries. We are going to space and beyond with those bean counters in charge. The change brought a bright future to this country.
Sinister1811
2.1 / 5 (11) Apr 14, 2012
This is pretty much inconclusive. They need to do more tests to determine whether there actually is life there. I honestly don't know if Mars was ever Earth-like, but present-day martian microbes must be tough to survive the planet's current conditions.
StarGazer2011
1.5 / 5 (8) Apr 14, 2012
@paulipease: you are missing the point. The question being posed is 'Why have all probes since Viking been designed to be INCAPABLE of providing a postitive result?'

@Vendicar: Spirit, Opportunity and Phoenix all could have carried these experiments; its not $.
alfie_null
4 / 5 (5) Apr 14, 2012
All these comments casting aspersion on NASA for not conducting the "right" experiments. I guess I'm too dense to read between the lines. Explain which crypto-secret group, conspiracy, or whatever is responsible? They otherwise seem to be pretty good at keeping a low profile.
la7dfa
4.2 / 5 (5) Apr 14, 2012
We are not doing much of anything thanks to the oblabla administration shutting space programs down. The change brought a bright future to this country.

Put the blame where it belongs, and stop watching FAUX news.
The cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone is more than 200 annual NASA budgets.
rwinners
1 / 5 (2) Apr 16, 2012
It's almost like they are purposely trying to build in wriggle room, rather than conducting conclusive experiments.


Yep. It's called insured funding.
sirchick
5 / 5 (1) Apr 16, 2012
Are we sure the robots we send up there are not contaminated by bacteria...

Perhaps they should microscope their own robots once it lands it would not surprise me if a tiny spec of bacteria made it to Mars.. weather it survived and is still alive is not quite so likely but not impossible.
Musing AboutStuff
1 / 5 (1) Apr 16, 2012
Hit up the Martians on Facebook in order to find them. Isn't everyone on Facebook? :-P

Seriously, though, this is an important question. @sirchick, bacterial contamination is possible, but I figure they would do everything possible to sanitize the vehicle.

But you're right, it is possible so as a backup they probably (or should have) included some provision for detecting earth-based contamination. Honestly I don't even know if such testing is possible once the craft is at Mars. Even so, it seems that practically speaking they would focus on ensuring that the soil collection part was as pristine as possible and could collect as much soil as possible. It's doubtful that a bacterial contamination from Earth would be so big that it would mess with a sizable soil sample right on the Martian surface.

I am curious to see what Curiosity finds.
rwinners
1 / 5 (1) Apr 16, 2012
There is a political reason for not 'searching for life' on Mars. If life is found, a whole new bag of problems will be opened, particularly by those who are 'green' here on Earth. I suspect huge objections would be raised about our 'contaminating' the Martian world.... though we probably have done so already.

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