Former NASA Scientist Confirms Viking Missions Found Life on Mars
The discovery of life beyond the planet Earth has been the primary goal of space scientists since the first robotic probes left the planet decades ago. Mars, while an inhospitable planet, has long thought to be one of the most promising places to find extraterrestrial life. Thus far, attempts to find ET, even in the form of microbes, have proven to be unsuccessful.
Or have they?
According to KOKA, the CBS affiliate in Pittsburgh, Gilbert V. Levin suggests that we discovered life on Mars over 40 years ago. Levin may know what he is talking about. He was the principal investigator on the Labeled Release (LR) experiment on the Viking spacecraft that landed on Mars in 1976.
The LR experiment placed nutrients in the Martian soil. If microbes were present, the nutrients would be consumed, and the Martian organisms would release gas that would be detected by sensors on the Viking. To make certain that the result was not a false positive, the soil would then be baked to kill any organisms and then the experiment would be repeated. If the first result had detected life, then the second would not.
Even though the experiment was successful, other experiments failed to find organisms. NASA was unable to duplicate the results of the experiment in a lab on Earth. At the time, the space agency concluded that what the LR had found was some mechanism that duplicated life but was not life.
Fast forward over 40 years. Currently, the Mars Curiosity rover is rolling about the Martian surface, sampling rocks, and soil samples. The rover has found organic matter in the Martian soil and evidence that the Red Planet contained saltwater lakes in the distant past.
Scientists believe that billions of years ago, Mars had a thick atmosphere, bodies of water, and perhaps life of some sort. But Mars’ magnetic field collapsed, exposing it to the solar wind, according to Ars Technica.
“Mars once had a strong magnetic field—like Earth does now—produced by a dynamo effect from its interior heat. But as the smaller planet cooled Mars lost its magnetic field sometime around 4.2 billion years ago, scientists say. During the next several hundred million years, the Sun’s powerful solar wind stripped particles away from the unprotected Martian atmosphere at a rate 100 to 1,000 times greater than that of today.”
Mars’ bodies of water dried up, and in short order, the Red Planet became the cold, arid place that it is today. The robotic probes that have explored Mars over the decades have tried to ascertain whether some of the lifeforms that existed there survived in some form, perhaps deep beneath the Martian soil. Hitherto, NASA has considered those efforts to be unsuccessful. Levin would like to disagree and would like the space agency to redouble its search, perhaps by replicating the LR experiment on a future space probe.
As it turns out, NASA is sending the Mars 2020 rover to Mars next year. It is a new and improved version of the Mars Curiosity. However, Mars 2020 lacks an experiment like the LR that is specifically designed to hunt for signs of current life. Levin would like that decision to be reversed, so that the LR experiment might be replicated on Mars, with a few enhancements. Currently, the Mars 2020 rover will only look for past signs of life.
If Levin is right, then the history of astrobiology will be rewritten. Most scientists believe that the discovery of extraterrestrial life will alter our understanding of the universe. Life can emerge separately than it did on Earth. Even rudimentary microbes discovered on Mars would have profound implications for humanity’s place in the universe.
The confirmation that life exists on Mars will complicate a growing imperative that NASA, other space agencies, and even commercial companies such as SpaceX are wrestling with. Planetary protection is the idea that Earth organisms should not contaminate planets like Mars nor should extraterrestrial life by allowed to enter the Earth’s biosphere.
Human explorers envisioned to voyage to Mars in the 2030s, would have to take care that they do not contaminate the Red Planet or take any lifeform from Mars back to Earth. The question arises, will human colonists, envisioned by people like SpaceX’s Elon Musk, even be allowed to settle the Red Planet? The argument of science vs colonization may be one of the most heated of the 21st Century.