Life on Mars, Maybe
Let me just say it outright: I believe there’s conclusive data that NASA has discovered evidence of living organisms on Mars. I’ll admit I’ve had a passion for the red planet since I was in fourth grade, so I’m biased towards finding life there. But having followed the Mars missions for nearly fifty years, let me lay out some facts, and you can judge for yourself. I’m not going to delve into the “Face on Mars,” or the later doctored photo showing it to be a pile of rocks, or the other enigmatic structures in the area which appear too geometrical to be natural. Let’s put all that aside, because I want to confine the discussion to biology, not conspiracy theories about aliens and UFOs.
A little more than a year ago I was listening to the late-night radio show “Coast to Coast,” and some guest was saying “Curiosity has found something on Mars.” Curiosity is one of the rovers we have on Mars, digging around for signs of organic life. But “Coast to Coast” is mainly about the paranormal, ghosts, or UFOs and alien abductions, so I gave it little attention. Besides, I didn’t hear it anywhere else. I wish now that I’d checked NASA’s website. Perhaps they’d found some more unusual geologic wonders; Mars has plenty.
Last December I heard something similar again, and this time I thought I’d go to the source, jpl/nasa.gov. An article dated Dec. 16 was titled: “Mars Rover Finds Active and Organic Chemistry.” It went on about discovering “burps” of methane at 10x the normal level. Organic? Really? Doesn’t that mean life? And methane is produced by the decay of organic matter. But not so fast. Organic, while usually referring to living things, can also apply to complex molecules necessary for life, and not necessarily life itself. Methane can also be produced by volcanism, and even though Mars is thought to have been geologically dead for millions of years, recent observations suggest otherwise. The key sentence that grabbed me: “There are organics preserved in the rocks.” The data is from observations in late 2013 (just about the same time I heard Curiosity had found something), and early 2014. Why did it take until December to reveal the findings? That’s a good question and I think I have a good answer — the 1961 Brookings report.
In April 1961, just weeks before Alan Shepard became the first American in space (well, sort of; he only went up 116 miles), NASA commissioned a think tank called the Brookings Institution to study our future in space. The report had the benign-sounding title “Proposed Studies on the Implications of Peaceful Space Activities for Human Affairs.” But there’s a section of special interest, called “Implications of a discovery of extraterrestrial life.” It emphasizes advanced life: “The knowledge of more technologically advanced extraterrestrial life or strong evidence of its reality could have a disruptive effect on human societies.” I’d say disruptive is a euphemism for catastrophic. It mentions previous contacts of our own advanced societies on more primitive ones, and there are many examples to draw upon.
The report goes on: “Artifacts left at some point in time by those life forms might possibly be discovered through our space activities on the moon, Mars, or Venus . . . “The consequences for attitudes and values are unpredictable, but would vary profoundly in different cultures and between groups within complex societies.” The section concludes with what I think was the original purpose of the report: “Questions one might wish to answer by such studies would include: how might such information, under what circumstances, be presented to or withheld from the public?” It leans towards the gradual leakage of information over a long period of time — drip, drip, drip. That’s why you may not have heard much about Curiosity’s discoveries on the mainstream media. Just a little drip, maybe, then it’s back to the Kardashians. Over time, through the process of osmosis, the knowledge gains gradual acceptance in the public consciousness.
I think this advisory applies to discovery of any kind of life anywhere. Look how crazy religious fundamentalists are already, and I don’t mean just Muslims. Something like this could blow their lids off, though I believe it would have a unifying effect overall. Maybe Curiosity didn’t find life, just organic compounds. But let’s go back to 1976, with the Viking Mission to Mars. Two landers performed experiments looking for the presence of life, past or present. In two of these, the lander scooped out a shallow portion of sand and examined it for organics, finding none. This isn’t surprising, since any organisms within the top few inches of soil would have been fried by UV rays, Mars having hardly any atmosphere. The third experiment yielded more exciting results. The Labeled Release experiment, developed by Gilbert Levin, took this sample of soil and injected radioactive C14 along with a nutrient solution. If anything in that soil metabolized it, radioactive CO2 would be given off. There was a profound reaction, and yet a week later, not so much. Levin was positive it indicated the presence of microbial activity, but he was over-ruled. They said something called “super-oxidants” could have caused the same reaction. I vividly remember the controversy.
On April 12, 2012, Discovery.com ran an article: “Mars Viking Robots Found Life.” This came from an international team of mathematicians and scientists led by Georgio Bianciardi of the University of Siena. They studied the old data and compared it to similar experiments done on Earth soils, and concluded that the Viking samples showed “a robust biological response.” Levin has never backed away from his original opinion, and said so in a CNN.com article in 2000. I wondered why the microbes in the Labeled Release weren’t fried by UV rays also, until I found out that some of those samples were taken from beneath rocks. And think about this: both Levin and this more recent effort are not talking about evidence of ancient life, but possibly something alive.
While you’re mulling that over, here’s something else to think about. Why else would NASA (and other nations) have been so obsessed with Mars in the last forty years? Since the Viking missions they’ve sent more craft to Mars than all the other space missions combined. Here’s the list (from mars.nasa.gov):
1988 — NASA Phobos 1 and 2 orbiters, (lost en route)
1992 — NASA Mars Observer, (lost en route)
1996 — NASA Mars Global Surveyor, which dropped the first rover, Pathfinder; Mars 96 (Russia, launch failure)
1998 — NASA Mars Climate Observer; Japanese Nozomi orbiter (no orbital insertion)
1999 –– NASA Mars Polar Lander, (lost on arrival); NASA Deep Space 2, which shot penetrators into the surface
2001 — NASA Mars Odyssey orbiter,
2003 — NASA’s two MER missions, or Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity; Mars Express, ESA (European Space Agency, lost lander)
2005 — NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter,
2007 — NASA Phoenix, (scout lander)
2011 — Yinghuo, a Chinese orbiter (stranded in Earth orbit); Phobos lander on the Martian satellite (Russia); NASA Mars Science Laboratory, which included the rover Curiosity.
2013 — India’s orbiter Mangalyoan; NASA MAVEN, a scout mission orbiter.
That seems like pretty intensive activity to me, just to look for life. To quote Yoda: Found it, I’d say!” I said I wouldn’t get into spacemen or alien civilizations, just the basics. A couple months ago the ESA’s Rosetta mission to Comet 67P put the first ever lander, Philae, on a comet. Before its batteries went dark it analyzed the stuff on the surface, finding more organics; ammonia, formaldehyde, alcohol, and others. It seems the solar system is teeming with organics. Methane is part of the atmospheres of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, as well as Saturn’s moon Titan, and it’s been detected in gaseous clouds in deep space.
Nearly fifty years ago science and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke proposed Jupiter’s moon Europa to be the best candidate for life, and observations from NASA show a water ocean beneath salt water ice, and recently NASA’s Cassini spacecraft discovered water geysers on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The number of extrasolar planets is over 800 now. If there’s even microbial life in any of these places, it could have been there for millions of years. That argues for the possibility of advanced life as well, doesn’t it? But meanwhile, who knows, we eventually find life in half a dozen places without even leaving the solar system. I am comforted by the feeling that we aren’t alone. Every once in awhile, it’s nice to have company over. Of course, we could find out we’re just someone else’s cattle.