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Viking Mars Mission Might Have Missed Life 136

Posted by Hemos
from the head-turned-the-wrong-way dept.
Johan Louwers writes "The Viking mars mission in 1976 might have missed signs of life due to not completely working analysis equipment. GC-MS on the Viking 1976 Mars missions did not detect organic molecules on the Martian surface, even those expected from meteorite bombardment. This result suggested that the Martian regolith might hold a potent oxidant that converts all organic molecules to carbon dioxide rapidly relative to the rate at which they arrive. This conclusion is influencing the design of Mars missions. We reexamine this conclusion in light of what is known about the oxidation of organic compounds generally and the nature of organics likely to come to Mars via meteorite."
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Viking Mars Mission Might Have Missed Life

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  • by Rob T Firefly (844560) on Monday October 23, 2006 @09:30AM (#16545560) Homepage Journal
    Ask anyone who was around in 1976, they probably wouldn't count that year as the time of their life in which they were the most lucid and observant of their surroundings.
    • by aadvancedGIR (959466) on Monday October 23, 2006 @09:42AM (#16545710)
      In 1976, I spent most of my lucid time observing my surroundings, then, in 77, I learned to walk to see something else.
    • by paganizer (566360)
      That was the year I went to California for music; saw Pink Floyd in anaheim, but that might have been '77. Pretty Colors.
      Also saw The Who, Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, AC/DC that year. and a bunch of others. the only one I was actually in a condition to remember is the Black Sabbath concert, and I just have some hazy memories.
      So, yeah, If I had been shot to mars (and i'm not saying I wasn't, it sounds possible) I would possibly have messed up some tests myself.
      • by sgt scrub (869860)
        I remember Pink Floyd in '77 but The Who was in '76. But again, things were a little foggy and I think I was in Texas for The Who. Is it just me or was there more fog back then?
        • by rts008 (812749)
          Best I can remember, I think it was foggier back the- at least for me!
          (graduated HIGH school in '76)
        • by kclittle (625128)
          Is it just me or was there more fog back then?

          That was fog permeating my entire dorm? Always wondered what that was. But, it was strangely pleasant...
          Bezerkly '76
  • missed? (Score:5, Funny)

    by FooAtWFU (699187) on Monday October 23, 2006 @09:32AM (#16545576) Homepage
    Viking Mars Mission Might Have Missed Life
    Damn. Well, let's get the next one ready. We'll nail the little buggers this time, for sure!
  • by aadvancedGIR (959466) on Monday October 23, 2006 @09:34AM (#16545596)
    Is this about non-working equipement or harsh environment capable of destroying organic molecules before they can be detected?
    • by FooAtWFU (699187) on Monday October 23, 2006 @09:35AM (#16545626) Homepage
      I think thie idea is: They sent Viking to Mars. It had this experiment on it to detect organic molecules. It all came back negative. They thought that meant there might be an oxidant that's actively destroying organic molecules, but these guys say that maybe the experiment was just broken.
      • by barawn (25691) on Monday October 23, 2006 @10:00AM (#16545898) Homepage
        I have no idea where the poster got the idea that the experiment would be broken - the article says nothing of the sort. It simply says that the experiment wouldn't have been able to detect certain organic molecules due to the fact that it was a gas chromatograph, and certain organic compounds - specifically, some that you might expect (well, with 30 more years of experience) to be on Mars - aren't volatile - i.e., easily turned into a gas.

        The big summary of the article is this:

        For these reasons, the Viking experiments do not exclude the possibility that the soil being tested contained organic carboxylic acids, especially benzenecarboxylic acids in substantial amounts.


        It's not due to the fact that the experiment was broken. It's just the way it was designed.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Sique (173459)
          It's not due to the fact that the experiment was broken. It's just the way it was designed.

          So it was broken by design?
    • by Dunbal (464142)
      or harsh environment capable of destroying organic molecules before they can be detected?

            So if the environment is so harsh that it will destroy mere molecules, the quantum leap here goes uhhh perhaps a complex cellular or multicellular organism can survive duh.

            There is no life on Mars.
  • Why not try again? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Salvance (1014001) on Monday October 23, 2006 @09:38AM (#16545654) Homepage Journal
    It seems a little silly to base 2006 missions on results from a 30 year old set of space technology. Sure, we were in our heyday of space exploration during the 70's, but our analytical equipment was light years behind where we are now. The largest computes had fractions of the computing power of today's Blackberry's, and we couldn't transmit data faster than ~300 bps back then. Both of these limitations (which don't exist today), would seriously impede the ability to detect signs of life.

    Rather than try to deduce why the analyses of 1976 didn't show signs of organic compounds on the surface, why not just perform better tests now with the next Mars mission?
    • Cost (Score:5, Insightful)

      by BeeBeard (999187) on Monday October 23, 2006 @09:46AM (#16545746)
      Mars missions are still extremely expensive, and there's a lot of wisdom behind analyzing past mistakes to make sure they don't happen again in future missions.
      • Seriously, for $400 million or whatever it takes to send a single unmanned probe to Mars for a few weeks or months before the probe dies, we could either a) accomplish many somethings of genuine use back on Earth or b) learn a heck of a lot more about extreme environment microbes by studying the extreme environments that we have all freaking around us which can be studied *without* needing to put the experimental apparatus on a rocket first. Surely biologists would learn more from funding, oh, say a hundre
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by garyboodhoo (945261)
          If we were to wait for all the "problems" on Earth, all the discoveries of "genuine value" on Earth to be figured out before looking up, we'd be a nation of lawyers, accountants and middle managers.

          we can multitask! We can kill & explore & educate & entertain all at the same time. The $400 million or whatever spent on a single unmanned probe is money well spent; not cheap, but not out of scale with any number of public or private projects. If we must, lets sacrifice 3 summer blockbusters each ye
        • An unmanned probe to Mars, if designed well, can last for more than a couple of weeks or months once it reaches Mars. The Opportunity rover has been sending data back for about two years now. The Mars Global Surveyor satellite has been sending data back for more than 8 years. The huge amounts of data obtained by these missions will probably keep scientists busy for a few years after the spacecraft or rovers themselves no longer function. The cost of these unmanned missions is very small compared to what
    • by Dunbal (464142) on Monday October 23, 2006 @10:02AM (#16545916)
      silly to base 2006 missions on results from a 30 year old set of space technology.

            You think that's silly, wait until you find out what missions were based on 30 years ago!

            But seriously, what _else_ are we going to base it on?
    • by Beryllium Sphere(tm) (193358) on Monday October 23, 2006 @10:26AM (#16546202) Homepage Journal
      We still have to decide where and how to look. If the hypothesis about powerful oxidizers in the soil is correct then all future tests for life should be designed to dig as deep as possible. But that involves moving parts and power consumption, which you don't want to incur unless you know you need them.
  • by BeeBeard (999187) on Monday October 23, 2006 @09:39AM (#16545676)
    That's just what they want us to think.
  • by Cicero382 (913621) <{ku.oc.ilacsit} {ta} {jycnalc}> on Monday October 23, 2006 @09:45AM (#16545732)
    ...barring some bizarre deep-rock extremophiles.

    1. Hard radiation on surface - not good.
    2. Virtually zero atmosphere - not that good.
    3. No (or little water) - not good.
    4. Highly oxidising compounds on surface - very bad.

    Each in themselves, not a show-stopper. Two - err... All of them == no life. Well, not as we know it (Jim - sorry).

    As a biochemist, I wouldn't expect any form of life (AWKI) to survive those conditions; not even if I were allowed to tweak every other possible variable to the organism's advantage. It would be nice to be proved wrong - but I don't think so.
    • As seen in the Onion [theonion.com]
    • by pla (258480) on Monday October 23, 2006 @10:02AM (#16545918) Journal
      barring some bizarre deep-rock extremophiles.

      You mean like these [slashdot.org], recently discovered in a South African gold mine?

      Except for the water part (which Mars may well have underground), they seem just about perfectly suited to the environment on Mars... They don't need an atmosphere, they depend on radiation, and they have a sulfur-based metabolism rather than using oxygen.

      Sounds like a good match... We should look for something like those, rather than trying to find types of organisms that, as you point out, have a very, very low chance of surviving on Mars.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Cicero382 (913621)
        "they seem just about perfectly suited to the environment on Mars... They don't need an atmosphere, they depend on radiation,"

        Which wouldn't help them on Mars. Unlike Earth which has an abundance of radioactive materials, Mars has virtually none that we know of. AFAIK, it's part of the reason that the planet is dead (tectonically, that is).
    • by jimktrains (838227) on Monday October 23, 2006 @10:17AM (#16546100) Homepage
      As a molecular biologist, I've learned that whenever I say "this can't/shouldn't happen", nature makes a fool of me. Life can find a niche anywhere.

      1. Hard radiation on surface - Deinococcus radiodurans.
      2. Virtually zero atmosphere - anaerobes (in general).
      3. No (or little water) - I forget the genus.
      4. Highly oxidising compounds on surface - cyanobacteria.

      Granted, it would be complex, but the features we want of each bacteria could be merged (as I said, not an easy of quick process, but in principle possible) to give a bacteria that could fit the bill. And if we can design one to, the natuer can evolve one to (in fact, nature has evolved things that we couldn't even begin to think about builing).

      I agree with previous poster, study the past; but a new mission focused on this is nessicary. We have better devises and methods for analysing samples.
      • by Cicero382 (913621)
        Um. I think you're just confirming what I was saying in the first place. Or, to put it another way, I think you missed my point - no disrespect intended - it's probably my lack of talent for explaining things.

        I was pointing out that each of the conditions I listed (and there are many more) had it's own special challenge to known (or even hypothesised) organisms. Note that I used a scale of "Not Good" to "Very Bad"; I didn't use "Impossible".

        What I was trying to say was that taken individually these condi
    • by WindBourne (631190) on Monday October 23, 2006 @10:44AM (#16546428) Journal
      1. There are bacteria that actually make use of radiation to provide the energy.
      2. No atmosphere you say; First off, there is an atmosphere there; It is mostly CO2. Anaerobe anyone?
      3. No water on Mars? You have to be kidding. It is known that there is plenty of water. But on the surface, It is in the form of ice.
      4. And again there are bacteria that withstand these compounds (few, but they exist).
      Finally, all of these issues are on the surface. Think about caves.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by LWATCDR (28044)
      But then almost no one would have expected to find life some of it pretty complex living in and near geothermal vents.
      Life seems to be very adaptable. I am pretty sure that not environment on earth have been found to be devoid of life. They found living bacteria on the less of the Surveyor camera that had sat on the moon for like two years!

      From what I know of history people thought that the deep sea would be lifeless as well. I mean think of the total lack of light, the cold, and the pressure. No life as th
    • by E++99 (880734)

      1. Hard radiation on surface - not good.
      2. Virtually zero atmosphere - not that good.
      3. No (or little water) - not good.
      4. Highly oxidising compounds on surface - very bad.

      Each in themselves, not a show-stopper. Two - err... All of them == no life. Well, not as we know it (Jim - sorry).

      It's a pretty big leap from "no life as we know it" to "no life," especially since any life on Mars would be, pretty much by definition, "not as we know it." It seems like a bad habit of convenience in science to use ignoran

    • Amphibian 1: They said it couldn't be done!
      Amphibian 2: Yup, but we sure made it didn't we?
      Amphibian 1: They said we couldn't survive out here because it was dry. No solvents for our biochemistry. But we just carry the solvents with us.
      Amphibian 2: And they said we could never breathe out here!
      Amphibian 1: Yeah, the fools were still thinking gills. Gills are so last geological period,
      Amphibian 2: And they said we couldn't get around without a liquid substrate to push against.
      Amphibian 1: There's nothi
  • Oh give me a break (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Vintermann (400722) on Monday October 23, 2006 @09:48AM (#16545762) Homepage
    The optimism of life-seekers on Mars does not suprise me any longer. Just about every person I have heard quoted believes that either there is life on Mars, or there was in the past. The only dissent I've heard was from James Lovelock, who predicted _before_ the Viking missions that no life would be found on Mars, based on its infrared signature from space. Simply put, he said that on the one planet we know life exists, it has completely transformed our environment to such a degree that would be completely impossible (from the amount of unstable gases in our atmosphere, among other things) for an alien observer to miss it. If there was life on Mars, why has it been so utterly passive and gentle to its environment compared to life on earth?

    I'm still convinced by that. I don't think life could have existed on Mars today without transforming its environment, and I don't think it could have existed in the past without leaving huge traces - and it would be very unlikely that it should die out, too. Life as we know it just doesn't behave like that.
    • Looking for life or organic compounds coming from Earth to Mars via meteorites. That is a reasonable scenario worth looking into.
    • by MORB (793798)
      Life doesn't imply sentience.
      • by MORB (793798)
        Ok, I understood what you wrote backwards.
        But still, as you point out, we know how life works on ONE planet. How can we assume that it always works like this?
        I think that the idea is that some rudimentary life form could exist on Mars and unable to evolve and thrive into somethign very complex because of the environment.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        That's not what he means. The blue-green algae changed the planet more than sentient life ever has.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Captain Hook (923766)
      Life as we know it just doesn't behave like that.
      Based on a sample of one data point.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis works well when applied to Earth (no doubt somebody will challenge this). The self-regulating web of life has emerged over billions of years. But Earth and Mars have had very different geological/areological histories. In this context, how might Mars look if life were interrupted by a huge meteor strike? Even a significant degree of life could be obliterated after a billion years of storms and strikes IMHO (not a planetary scientist). Looking back to early Earth, what t
  • by MrJerryNormandinSir (197432) on Monday October 23, 2006 @09:48AM (#16545766)
    Wrong. The Viking mission detected microbial life. I was a 12 year old paper boy at the time. I remember, this made front page headline news. The Viking mission detected microbial life. The following day it was retracted. I kind of believed that the retraction was false. I always did. Perhaps manipulation from the right wing of our government thinking that we were not ready for the information. hey , if microbes can survive deep in the permafrost in the Antartic, then hey, microbes can survive on mars
    deep in the martian soil.

    As far as advanced life, well think about how many stars there are, followed by how many solar systems, and the expanse of the universe, heck... an alien life form may be so far out there that we'd never make contact, but heck, it's possible that there's life
    out there.
    • Wrong. The Viking mission detected microbial life....The following day it was retracted.

      As TFA explains:

      The Viking 1976 missions to Mars performed several experiments designed to assess the potential for life on the planet. The results were puzzling. Samples of soil from the top 10 cm of the Martian surface released dioxygen when exposed to humidity (1). At least one compound in a set of radiolabeled organic compounds (formate, D,L-lactate, glycolate, glycine, and D,L-alanine) released radiolabeled ca

    • Yep, we had neo-cons clear back then. Yeah, I remember that when it occured. It occasionally makes it into google as well. The original inventor of the idea backed off because a different route was found that could invalidate the test (it was generation of various gases that were measured via gas chromatograph as I recall. Since then every test that we have done that checks for possible life comes back positive, but we always figure inorganic chemistries that can get around these.

      I guess that until we go t
    • Many tests for life look for chemical disequilibriums in soil or the atmosphere. The hypothesis is life will cause disequilibriums. One example is that ethane and oxygen together is unstable, since solar energy will eventually cause methane to combine with oxygen to make more stable water and carbon dioxide.
      The oxygen disequiblrium found in the Viking soils was attributed to peroxide in the soil caused by UV bombardment. This didnt rule out life, but provided a non-biotic alternative explanation.
      A re
    • by khallow (566160)

      Perhaps manipulation from the right wing of our government thinking that we were not ready for the information.

      So how did these "right wing" people manage to control the Carter administration a few months later and all those scientists? And how come the actual data from Mars was so inconclusive?
    • The one incentive I can think of to play the Powerball lottery is that a person could win enough money to pay for a private venture to put Gilbert Levin's chiral labeled-release experiment package on the surface of Mars. The script goes something like

      1. Win Powerball

      2. Phone Dr. Gilbert Levin

      . . .

      3. Fame and glory!

      Of course I wouldn't get the Nobel Prize -- I would go down in history as the chump who spent his Powerball winnings on a Mars probe when he could have had a powerboat and a whirlpool b

  • This is sort of old (Score:5, Informative)

    by dbirnbau (640779) on Monday October 23, 2006 @09:49AM (#16545776)
    Notice that this article was published in 2000. It doesn't say that the equipment was "broken"; it merely points out that there exist chemical pathways that would result in relatively stable organic compounds that wouldn't have been detected by the Viking equipment. The next mission can look for traces of these compounds specifically, now that someone has pointed out that there is a mechanism for their creation.
  • It's probably obvious by now that there aren't any bipeds walking around on Mars. Is it feasible to seed microbial colonies now that could possibly assist us for when we have the ability to colonize Mars in 200 years?
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by iamlucky13 (795185)
      A couple reasons:

      1.) There might really be life there that we're missing. If we "seed" Mars, we taint any future observations. We might even end up overwhelming it (eg, non-native invasive species).

      2.) What do you send? As others have noted, the environment on Mars is extremely hostile to life as we know it. We could spend half a billion dollars sending a capsule with some fancy extremophiles there only to have them all die.

      3.) Assuming they survive, in a radically different environment, they may n
  • How rude. (Score:2, Funny)

    by Honest Olaf (1011253)
    At least when Martians launch missions to Earth, they have the courtesy to say "Hi". Even if it's with a million-degree super-laser.
  • by mrjb (547783) on Monday October 23, 2006 @09:52AM (#16545824)
    ...is of course, still, that there simply is no life on Mars (except for the micro-organisms we brought there from Earth). Just because the equipment failed to detect it, doesn't mean it has to exist. That's like saying "I've never seen a yellow-dotted purple kangaroo, but I may have been looking in the wrong direction so they probably exist."
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Dunbal (464142)
      That's like saying "I've never seen a yellow-dotted purple kangaroo, but I may have been looking in the wrong direction so they probably exist."

            G'day mate! You've probably ne'er tried any of these mushrooms - here you go. See the 'roo now, mate?
    • by nusuth (520833)
      I think you are missing the point of the article. Organic compounds (not necessarily of biological origin) are expected to be found on Mars. The experiment failed to find any. That was taken as a evidence of strongly oxidazing agents in the Martian environment, one that destroys all organic compounds on surface very quickly. That does not mean organic compounds of biological origin cannot exist on Mars, it just means they wouldn't survive very long. The article explains why such compounds would be missed ev
  • by TechForensics (944258) on Monday October 23, 2006 @09:55AM (#16545846) Homepage Journal
    One of the earlier Viking missions had a test that burned a small sample of soil to see if carbon were produced; if yes, Life! I have always thought this experiment was misconceived, as it would not have proved the existence of life on Mars. It would have proved there USED TO BE life on Mars-- we killed it!

    with apologies to Father Guido Sarducci...

  • Alternative 3 (Score:5, Interesting)

    by clickclickdrone (964164) on Monday October 23, 2006 @10:07AM (#16545958)
    I still vividly remember watching the BBC 'April Fool' documentary 'Alternative 3' in the 70's which scared the hell out of me. For those that never heard of it, it was a documentry about the various scientists that were going missing at the time (for real, in the UK) and claimed they had found out the Earth was dying and the governments of the world had drawn up 3 solutions. 1 & 2 were something like reducing population growth, killing excess/useless members of the population etc. but 3 was to go to Mars, seed the atmosphere and start to collonise it. They had a thread running through of an encrypted video tape they'd been given. When they managed to get a decoder it showed a clip taken by Voyager of the now familiar rock strewn red surface but as the camera panned, the soil started to move and something was clearly alive there and burrowing about under the surface. The point being Mars wasn't as dead as we first thought.
    Oh, and the 'missing' scientists were all on Mars working on the terraforming.
    Trouble was, it was supposed to be an April fool joke but got showed about a week later causing Orson Wells/War of the Worlds chaos for a few days until the BBC issued a release saying it was all a joke. A book came out about ten years later saying it was all real and the BBC had been forced to cover it up.
    To be clear, it was a spoof - it had lots of people in it who are now well known actors but at the time were unknowns.
    Alas, apart from a few very grainy clips, it has never been reshown and is almost impossible to find.
  • ANY test we perform or observation we make could be totally flawed because we don't know what we're looking for.
  • Where are the idiots proclaiming that the U.S. faked the Mars Viking landings?
    • Where are the idiots proclaiming that the U.S. faked the Mars Viking landings?

      You have it all wrong: they claim NASA covered up the results of the Mars Viking landings and faked the moon landings. ::)
  • Typical (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 23, 2006 @10:28AM (#16546210)
    Never send a Viking to do a Norseman's job.
  • by EXTomar (78739) on Monday October 23, 2006 @10:35AM (#16546324)
    Which doesn't mean "it missed something!" Viking might have "missed something" and yet there still might not be life. It just means it isn't very conclusive so we should go back and look again.

    One thing that I continually like to point out is that "life" at a basic level is agressively replicant. If there is any life that is a little successful, it explodes and tries to fill every nook and cranny and does it as fast as it can. If there is life anywhere on Mars it should be easy to find if we take a wide survey testing multiple places at multiple times of the Martian year. Just two tests isn't sufficient to call it either way.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by RsG (809189)

      One thing that I continually like to point out is that "life" at a basic level is agressively replicant. If there is any life that is a little successful, it explodes and tries to fill every nook and cranny and does it as fast as it can.

      That assumption is working from Earthlike conditions. Life is successful here for reasons that don't apply offworld; namely the abundance of liquid water, plentiful useful chemical compounds in the air, and a thick atmosphere coupled with a magnetic field that blocks most h

      • by 808140 (808140)
        The partial pressure of CO2 is higher on Mars than it is on Earth. Most of Earth's atmosphere is nitrogen, in a terribly stable and inert diatomic configuration. Nitrogen is necessary for us on Earth only because it acts as a "buffer gas", and in places where different "atmospheric" pressure causes nitrogen to be soluble in the bloodstream (undersea installations and such), we use other gases for the same purpose (like Helium, Neon, or Argon).

        It seems reasonable to expect that if they were robust enough,
  • Mars is a dead planet
  • And if I close my eyes, I might miss the Pink Unicorn.

    There is no life on Mars. There probably never was life on Mars. There is no ecosystem to protect. Let's terraform it.
  • Perform the experiment with two soil samples, one of them is first irradiated with a dose similar to that used for sterilization of food or medical equipment here on Earth.
  • by GmAz (916505)
    Or...there is no live on Mars. ***GASP***
  • obviously EVERY mars-mission, that didn't find life there, missed the gasoline for the chainsaw
  • ... But Beagle missed Mars.
  • I've grown tired of the question regarding existing life on mars. Theocratic arguments don't interest me. I want the next missions to focus only on questions regarding the steps needed to terraform and colonize.
    • by russellh (547685)
      Yeah. But Mars is an oldster, while Venus is the much more exciting up and comer! Because everyone knows that the sun is a planet factory. Sure - Earth is in the sweet spot for unassisted living now, but Mars will always be on life support, while Venus is where it's at tomorrow.
      • by RsG (809189)
        Get back to us when you have a way to strip a planet of most of its atmosphere. Remember that Venus has enough air that the surface pressure is akin to the bottom of the ocean on Earth. How are you going to get rid of that? Where do you plan on moving it to?

        Oh, and you might want to look into how you'd go about giving Venus a useful rotational period (it's something godawfully long now, 240 odd days), and a protective magnetic field. Otherwise, you can pretty much forget about living on the surface; you
        • by russellh (547685)
          Yes, you're right, Venus is not quite ripe yet, but give it a few hundred million years.
  • The solution to the possible peroxides (not the life-detection) issue is to fly a set of sample materials and see how they react to martian atmosphere and regolith. We've been batting this back and forth for 20 years - just fly some samples and see what happens.

    There were reports a few years ago about a new analysis of Viking GC-MS data that showed a 24.5-hour respiration cycle in the regolith samples it gathered. We might have to stop calling it regolith and start calling it soil.

    Josh
    • The solution to the possible peroxides (not the life-detection) issue is to fly a set of sample materials and see how they react to martian atmosphere and regolith.

      I don't understand. What do you mean by "fly a set of sample materials"

      • by J05H (5625)
        Sample kits are something that NASA and others make to better understand how our materials interact with the space environment. They call the current ones on ISS "suitcases", basically it's a case with a flat tray inside and many (dozens) of different materials attached to the tray. The ones on ISS spend several months exposed to vacuum and are then retrieved for analysis. Similiar experiments with exposure facilities have been done on MIR and freeflyers like the recent Russian FOTON launch. Interesting poi
        • Interesting point on the FOTON capsule: it showed that two species of lichen can survive in open space.

          I didn't know that! Even the bacteria sample from the Surveyor 3 camera was considered likely to be contamination on Earth.

  • the Martian race? THAT explains everything. ;-)

    LoB
  • by Chemicalscum (525689) on Monday October 23, 2006 @12:05PM (#16547444) Journal
    The Viking mission did find life on Mars. There were two experiments designed to detect life on Mars. The chemistry experiment using Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry headed by Prof. Klaus Biemann and the biology experiment using a Labelled Release technique headed by Dr. Gilbert Levine. The GC-MS experiment reported a failure to detect organic molecules that could be associated with life. The LR biology experiment reported the detection of life. This meant that radiolabelled carbon dioxide was detected as being released from a media containing a mixture of labelled amino acids and sugars after incubation with Martian soil: http://mars.spherix.com/ [spherix.com] .

    Klaus Biemann was a famous and respected chemist and mass-spectrometrist who had done much of the original work in developing GC-MS, While Gilbert Levine was a relative unknown who had run a start company that sold environmental testing equipment based on the LR technology Levine had invented. Bieman to it as an affront to himself the chemists and mass spectrometry as a technique that a biology experiment could detect life when his chemistry experiment could not. So he took it upon himself to launch an unremitting campaign to prove that the LR results were a false positive. The claimed to have proved this to be so but this was specious as no one had proposed a chemical model that would reproduce the Martian LR results in the laboratory.

    Meanwhile experimental tests helped show the reliability of the LR experiments. Samples of Lunar rock from the Apollo missions tested negative, while Antarctic ice cores, which had been shown to contain micro-organisms at a very low level, gave positive results. However Biemann and other chemists, together with those that just simply refused to believe life on Mars is possible, had more or less silenced the debate.

    I write this as a chemist who had just started work on GC-MS (and to me Biemann was something of a hero) at the time of the Viking landings (yes I am ancient). However I am convinced now after looking at the evidence that there is a strong case to argue that the LR experiments on the Viking landers provided strong evidence for the presence of microbial life in Martian soil.

    • by Chemicalscum (525689) on Monday October 23, 2006 @12:22PM (#16547736) Journal
      An additional point as a mass spectrometrist I know that their their is a limit to detection by mass spec. It is very low but not low enough to deal with the following scenario. There are very low levels of micro-organisms in a dormant spore form present in the Martian soil, similar to the situation with antarctic ice cores. When liquid water becomes available, These spores convert to their active vegatative state which can use inorganic chemical reactions for energy and carbon dioxide as a carbon source.

      If biological molecules are available they can facultatively use them for growth as in the case of Levine's Labelled Release experiment. This means that there could be very low levels of organic material in the Martian soil yet living potentially active micro-organisms could be present. This would explain the negative result found by the Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry experiment.

    • by khallow (566160)

      However I am convinced now after looking at the evidence that there is a strong case to argue that the LR experiments on the Viking landers provided strong evidence for the presence of microbial life in Martian soil.

      No. There was a plausible non-biological explanation. And you need a lot more than the few data points you describe before we can determine the effectiveness of the LR test.
      • No. There was a plausible non-biological explanation. And you need a lot more than the few data points you describe before we can determine the effectiveness of the LR test.

        O.K. What was it then ? I am still waiting to hear. If they can't reproduce it in the laboratory it is just speculation, unlike the results Levin got which was more than just a "few data points." Look at the data yourself the URL is given in a following post.

        • by khallow (566160)

          First, the Labeled Release (LR) experiment could only run the test on two relevant categories of known soils, terran and lunar. That still is true. I consider that only a couple of data points. You shouldn't claim that you've discovered life based on that kind of evidence.

          Second, no experiment has duplicated the LR results, but something chemically analogous to the hypothetical Martian soil type, "peroxide-modified titanium dioxide" has been demonstrated [nih.gov] to generate what was observed in the LR experiment.

    • Thank you, thank you, thank you. You summarized rather nicely the sometimes rancorous debate between Dr. Gilbert Levin and other scientists. Dr. Levin maintains to this day that the Viking Labeled Release Experiment did in fact detect life. The raw data as well as a useful experimenters notebook from the Viking LR experiment can be found here. [nasa.gov]
  • Or (Score:3, Insightful)

    by slapout (93640) on Monday October 23, 2006 @02:09PM (#16549334)
    it could simply be that there is no life on Mars.
  • by Dibblah (645750) on Monday October 23, 2006 @07:27PM (#16553692)
    Organic means literally "compounds containing but not limited to Carbon and Hydrogen". Most of the comments here seem to be focussing on the "life" aspect here - Which is not what this science experiment (AFAIK) was about.

Never tell people how to do things. Tell them WHAT to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity. -- Gen. George S. Patton, Jr.

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