It’s frequently alleged that NASA may have hidden, obfuscated, or otherwise destroyed evidence of extraterrestrial life in its sixty-year history. While a great deal of these claims are based solely on individuals’ interpretations of NASA photographs or videos, sometimes scientists do actually uncover inconsistencies or irregularities in NASA’s hard data. In 2016, one such case came to light when a pair of astrophysicists published a rebuttal of forty-year-old data gathered on the surface of the Red Planet by NASA’s Viking 1 lander. The article claims that the Viking lander actually uncovered evidence of organic molecules in Martian soil samples, but that the data was either misinterpreted or deliberately hidden.
Now, those claims have been taken one step further as a new study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research now claims that the Viking lander might have actually destroyed evidence of organic molecules – the building blocks of life – by heating them up in its gas chromatograph‐mass spectrometer or GCMS, a scientific instrument which heats/burns substances to determine their composition. Did NASA unwittingly incinerate proof of life (or more realistically, the potential for life) on Mars?
It’s hard to stay. This new study examines data gathered by NASA’s Phoenix lander in 2008 and Curiosity rover in 2013. In their analyses of Martian soil, both rovers discovered the presence of perchlorates, salt compounds used in propellants and to control static electricity in food packaging. When heated to high temperatures, perchlorates break down into other compounds, one of which is chlorobenzene. It turns out that the 1976 Viking lander, the same one accused of possibly having detected organic compounds without NASA admitting as much, detected the presence of chlorobenzene in its GCMS data.
What does this mean? Ultimately, all we know for sure is that NASA likely had evidence of organic matter on Mars forty years ago and either didn’t realize what they were looking at, or intentionally hid the data. Nobody has gone so far as to make that claim yet, but given that the Viking landers cost over $5 billion, it wouldn’t have been a wise funding move to admit that NASA’s flagship lander incinerated the best evidence we had at the time that life may exist or may have existed elsewhere in the solar system.
Ultimately, not even all of the scientists involved with this study are convinced that the chlorobenzene is proof that the Viking incinerated organic compounds; one author believes the readings could be the result of terrestrial contamination. Whatever the case may be with this reexamination of the Viking data, this case makes you wonder: could we already have proof of alien life resting in some vault or dataset somewhere and not even know it yet?