While most of the space world is waiting (as of this writing) for word whether the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli EDM lander successfully landed on Mars, a new paper claims that the first probe to land on Mars way back in 1976 found conclusive evidence of life on the Red Planet. Is this a matter of technology finally catching up with the data or evidence of a cover-up?
On July 20, 1976, Viking 1 became the first spacecraft to land successfully on Mars. One of the tests conducted by Viking 1 was the Labeled Release (LR) experiment. A sample of Martian soil was mixed with a drop of very dilute aqueous nutrient solution whose nutrients were marked with a radioactive isotope of carbon. The air above the sample was monitored and tested positive for radioactive carbon dioxide (CO2) gas, which would indicate that microorganisms in the soil had metabolized the nutrients. The same experiment was conducted by the Viking 2 lander over 6,000 km away with the same result.
And yet … there was no celebration or big announcement of life being discovered on Mars. Why? The other biological experiments on the Viking 1 lander gave negative results, causing project leaders to dismiss the LR results as errors “most likely caused by a non-biological soil oxidant,”
Dr. Gilbert V. Levin and Dr. Patricia Ann Straat recently published an article in the Journal Astrobiology which questions that conclusion. With new evidence of liquid water, complex organic molecules and methane on Mars, they believe that Viking 1’s LR experiment was right. This would be a moral victory for them since Levin and Straat were the Viking 1 LR experiment leaders.
To prove the results were not in error, they conducted the LR experiment again using Earth soil similar to the Martian surface and let it sit for two months in a dark room. When they checked, they found the same results as Viking 1.
Is this conclusive evidence of life on Mars? Not quite, but it’s enough to prompt Levin and Straat to warn their successors planning missions to bring soil samples from Mars back to Earth.
Plans for any Mars sample return mission should also take into account that such a sample may contain viable, even if dormant, alien life. We cannot rule out the biological explanation. This has implications for plans for sample return from Mars and future human missions.
Were the original results of the Viking 1 LR experiment covered up? It’s hard to prove. Viking Project scientist Dr. Gerald Soffen is often cited as the one responsible for calling it an error, saying “That's the ball game. No organics on Mars, no life on Mars.” That dictated the direction of all future Mars missions away from looking for life and instead towards sending humans to the planet to bring back lifeless soil samples.
Was Viking 1 right all along?