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View of Mars from Viking 2 lander, September 1976. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Is This Proof of Life on Mars?

Article Updated: 23 Dec , 2015

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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 Mars 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.

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.

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.

“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 life has not yet been perfected — not even here on Earth — the results are certainly intriguing… enough to bolster support for further investigation into Viking data and perhaps re-evaluate the historic mission’s “inconclusive” findings.

The team’s paper can be found here.

Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Also, read more on Irene Klotz’s article on Discovery News.

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Heather Archuletta
Guest
April 12, 2012 9:22 PM

Very exciting! Even if particular exploratory ramifications come with it. Can’t wait for MSL to gather samples and data, hopefully confirming many of these deductions and/or elaborating… smile

Jason Carr
Guest
Jason Carr
April 12, 2012 7:58 PM

This debate has been going on for years. I suspect the only real way we’ll ever know for sure is to send new bots to Mars that can provide conclusive evidence (one way or the other). Let’s hope this happens soon because I’d hate to see this debate go on for another decade. Great post Jason!

Jordan Davis
Guest
April 13, 2012 12:00 AM

what makes you think theyd let us see them? how do we know there isnt proof already?

.. .__.
Guest
April 13, 2012 12:20 AM

Tell us what medications you are on and who exactly you think “they” are.

John Stock
Guest
April 13, 2012 2:00 AM

So by default everything is a conspiracy and you trust noone? Give me a break and give your head a shake.

Matt Colonna
Guest
April 14, 2012 6:16 PM

What makes YOU think that they would keep microbial life a secret??
What would be the purpose of hiding bacteria?

Jeremy
Guest
Jeremy
April 14, 2012 7:37 PM

Religion. In case you guys are not aware, the religious right is very afraid of findings that might hurt their religious story. For example, most teachings in the bible hint that any life outside of earth, would be angels, therefore if we find stuff other than angels, well, god lied. I’m not saying there is a conspiracy, but come on, all you have to do is research Pythagoras to see what I’m talking about.

DengFing
Guest
DengFing
April 13, 2012 1:58 AM

Sounds pretty real to me dude. Wow.
http://www.Total-Privacy dot US

David Krauss
Guest
David Krauss
April 13, 2012 2:01 AM

“By applying mathematical complexities to the Viking data for deeper analysis”… uh-oh, skeptic alarm… how well was this experiment repeated by Phoenix, and will we get more relevant results from Curiosity?

Ethan Walker
Guest
Ethan Walker
April 13, 2012 3:02 AM

Phoenix did not attempt to recreate this experiment, although its unexpected discovery of perchlorates in the soil settled some mysteries from the Viking data. Curiosity also does not carry anything like the infamous Viking experiment, although I think it does have a pair of chiral columns for the GCMS which could potentially (extreme long shot) provide some evidence for life. But generally Curiosity is more focused on chemistry than and mineralogy than exobiology. The main lesson drawn from Viking seems to be that without a much better understanding of martian soil chemistry, its hard to say much of anything conclusively from that sort of experiment.

Torbjorn Larsson OM
Member
Torbjorn Larsson OM
April 13, 2012 7:54 PM

The Phoenix data made a complete prediction of the Viking experiments possible, since the perchlorates predicts the absence of organics in the thermal decomposition experiments used at both sites.

So you can say that Phoenix rejected instead of confirmed the Viking experiment.

Hans Peter Uhrig
Guest
Hans Peter Uhrig
April 16, 2012 8:15 AM
The Viking LR didn’t rely on pyrolysis (heating) as the other experiments who failed to get positives. The LR just checked for gas release in case of the (radio-labeled)nutrient solution would be metabolized by microbes in the soil samples. In all cases the LR measured a steady (radioactive) gas release in the active samples which was expected as sign of respiration. The same samples didn’t show any gas release after they were heat-sterilized (160°C) or after sample storage for 3-4 months in the dark but otherwise ambient but isolated conditions. Interestingly the soil samples showed a lower release of gas after the sterilization temperature for the control run had been altered to ~46°C and 50°C respectively. The 50°C… Read more »
Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
April 13, 2012 2:44 AM

The one problem is that I don’t know what is meant by “mathematical complexities to the Viking data for deeper analysis.” However, I did read about 10 years ago that the gasses produced in the Viking experiment had a diurnal cycle. That tends to give me some reason to suspect there might indeed have been life after all.

LC

Torbjorn Larsson OM
Member
Torbjorn Larsson OM
April 13, 2012 7:51 PM

But the capsule and the experiments had a diurnal voltage and temperature cycle too. The experiments were too poorly designed to control for that.

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
April 13, 2012 8:36 PM

I should have thought with a $billion program they would have thermostatic controlled the experiment. With a little insulation and a simple device that should have been rather easily covered.

LC

Shandooga
Guest
Shandooga
April 13, 2012 5:22 AM

Ridiculous. Mars is and always has been a barren rock. Get over it. All the planets are “formless and waste”…except for Earth. Just accept it.

Corey Sioui
Guest
April 13, 2012 7:38 AM

Mars hasn’t always been a barren rock, it does have an atmosphere and there is ice at the polar caps. If it is and always has been barren rock then you wouldn’t have either.

squidgeny
Member
squidgeny
April 13, 2012 12:13 PM

Yeah, Science. Just accept this thing some guy somewhere said this one time. Stop trying to investigate things and find facts!

Tommy Deblieck
Guest
Tommy Deblieck
April 13, 2012 8:56 AM

WHAT DO YOU KNOW ? Been there ? IM NOT A BELIEVER WHEN IT COMES TO GOD… BUT I CAN TELL YOU 1 THING FOR SURE !!!!

I AM FROM BELGIUM , AND 26 YEARS AGO? WHEN I WAS 7 .

I SAW AN UFO !!! VEEEEEERY CLOSE 100m FROM US !!!

SO SCARY !!! SO I KNOW 1 THING FOR SURE… WE ARE NOT ALONE !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Duncan Ivry
Guest
Duncan Ivry
April 13, 2012 1:07 PM

Stop shouting to other people here, please.

Torbjorn Larsson OM
Member
Torbjorn Larsson OM
April 13, 2012 7:44 PM

Of course, “don’t look”. So what are you afraid of.

TheMan
Guest
TheMan
April 13, 2012 5:17 PM

This is true. There is a reason there is life on Earth and not on other planets within our solar system.

Torbjorn Larsson OM
Member
Torbjorn Larsson OM
April 13, 2012 7:49 PM

Nothing that is raised in astrobiology, and since you don’t give references there likely is none even posed.

The rapidity with which life arose on Earth implies that it is an easy enough process. Anything from large enough asteroids so that their wet zone migrates slowly enough, through ice ocean moons to habitable terrestrials should likely have life.

In our system this means Venus and Mars may have had it, Earth has it, there are some 14 ice moons that may have oceans and there are some 20 asteroids and probably as many moons (including our own) that may have had it deep in their crust.

And, joy, we can go looking!

Rolando Pacheco
Guest
Rolando Pacheco
April 16, 2012 9:34 PM

Well i don’t think so, i think that in some way it is life in mars, bacterial or germs, because in the past of mars it was equal to earth whit wather and oxigen, so life can breack true on it own way…

Superluminal
Member
April 13, 2012 7:51 AM

Until we can either go to Mars ourselves or have a sample return mission, MSL will probablly find more questions than it answers.

Dampe
Guest
Dampe
April 13, 2012 9:18 AM

I think it’s time to move on from the Viking data. If there ‘is’ or ‘has been’ life on Mars, other missions WILL detect it eventually. The data was inconclusive in the 80’s.
Even if the math may suggest life, it’s not direct evidence.

Duncan Ivry
Guest
Duncan Ivry
April 13, 2012 2:03 PM
Regarding “applying mathematical complexities to the Viking data” In the paper the authors say: “We have applied complexity analysis to the Viking LR data. Measures of mathematical complexity permit deep analysis of data structure along continua including signal vs. noise, entropy vs.negentropy, periodicity vs. aperiodicity, order vs. disorder etc.” There are indeed a lot of proposals for measures of the complexity of data (or of algorithms as well — usually data is implemented with algorithms for manipulating the data). The authors compare the complexity — defined through the measures mentioned above — of the Viking data to (a) biological data on the one hand and to (b) purely physical (non-biological) data on the other hand. The comparisons are… Read more »
Torbjorn Larsson OM
Member
Torbjorn Larsson OM
April 13, 2012 8:18 PM

They don’t give much in the way of a conclusive method to distinguish between biological and physical systems, especially since their reference physical systems are simple references so low complexity.

But I note that Levin claims he has looked at superoxidants but can’t find that they repeat all the conditions of the test. Still, we would need for someone to repeat that work and to look more closely to the possible variations of the capsule environment. As it is, the oxidants are known to be there, and in that case Levin’s experiment oddly did not pick them up at all. That is possibly even worse for the robustness of conclusions from it. =D

jjb
Member
jjb
April 13, 2012 3:59 PM
Will I be surprised to find ‘microbial’ or “cellular” or “germ” traces or evidence that such existed on Mars? No. Why should that be a surprise? Will we find evidence of advance life forms – Seriously doubt it. It would be “sweet” if such did exist. Heck I would be excited if we found traces of something like a ‘bird’ or ‘insect’/’bug’ or even vegetation/plant life forms! But I don’t think we will find anything beyond the microbial – cellular – germ size/complexity. But understand – That too would be FANTASTIC!! I don’t think it would be kept quiet – Why? “Hush we found dead non-complex life signs.” (The stuff dreams are made of – but nothing more!)… Read more »
Torbjorn Larsson OM
Member
Torbjorn Larsson OM
April 13, 2012 7:41 PM

No, it is not enough. Reanalyzing data for 35 years will turn up correlations with the pattern you search for. The right thing to do is to reconstruct the experiment so it can yield an observation.

This is something the Viking scientists has failed to do, mainly because the initial experiment was so poorly constructed that these non-conclusive observations were possible. The current program has found water and the next rover Curiosity will look for organics. It may find extant or extinct life, but not by a dedicated experiment.

TheMan
Guest
TheMan
April 13, 2012 5:16 PM

Why don’t they just send Google up there? They’d have that shit mapped in two weeks tops! With Streetview!

Aqua4U
Member
April 14, 2012 3:07 PM
Yes, there IS life on Mars – without a doubt. Unfortunately, that life came from Earth. Our landers all have had residual biological detritus or ‘fluff’ on them. We have contaminated Mars! Reviewing Viking data after all these years sounds like rereading an old pulp fiction detective story – “40 year old murder case finally solved – the butler did it!” “For much of the history of living things, organisms were exclusively primitive, single-celled forms such as bacteria and cyanobacteria. Then as now, these simple prokaryotic cells lacked a nucleus and were relatively small, but they already contained the same basic hereditary materials found in all life today—DNA and RNA. Many of these early life forms relied on… Read more »
Neeraj Jangale
Guest
Neeraj Jangale
April 14, 2012 8:26 PM

NASA is worthless money pit in a dozen or so lunar missions they found no traces of water , Indian ISRO with its Lunar mission found water on its first try
I hope ISRO and ESA have missions scheduled for MARS and find something

Dark Gnat
Member
Dark Gnat
April 16, 2012 1:22 PM

You don’t sound biased at all.

Dennis Michael Bienkowski
Guest
April 16, 2012 5:22 PM

I believe Mars was just like Earth , striving with Life !! wonder what The dominant Life form did to ruin it ? oh well , Im sure we will see first hand soon enough

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