Former NASA Astrobiologist: We may have found life on Mars 50 years ago and accidentally killed it
Astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch, a former NASA researcher, said in a paper that they found life on Mars, but that the organism given water may have suffocated because it adapted to the ‘dry climate’.
NASA sent two Viking rovers to Mars in the 1970s, looking for signs of life on the planet. Now astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch claims that the landers did indeed find evidence of microbial life forms on Mars, but may have accidentally destroyed them in the process.
“We found life on Mars about 50 years ago, but we accidentally killed it,” Schulze-Makuch, a professor of planetary habitability and astrobiology at the Technical University of Berlin in Germany and a former researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a paper.
The Viking landers, a NASA space probe equipped with both imaging technology and tools to test for life, landed on Mars in 1976. But Viking’s tests, which were launched to test for life, yielded contradictory results that have puzzled researchers for decades.
In one of these tests, trace amounts of chlorinated organic matter were found. At the time, these organic materials were assumed to be the result of contamination from Earth and were dismissed as inconclusive evidence of life at best.
But after subsequent discoveries, such as those made by the Phoenix lander and the Curiosity and Perseverance rovers, scientists now know that these chlorinated organics are indeed native to Mars. Schulze-Makuch believes that the processes used to perform the tests may have destroyed evidence of life, and perhaps this could explain the confusing results of the experiments.
Schulze-Makuch said one of the tests involved adding water to samples of Martian soil to test for evidence of metabolism and photosynthesis. That’s because scientists were operating under the assumption that life on Mars would be similar to life on Earth, which needs water to survive.
How was the alleged life found killed?
But Mars is known as an incredibly arid planet. Schulze-Makuch said that while water-moistened soil is ‘favorable for life’, it could have ultimately ‘suffocated’ organic microbes that had probably adapted to the dryness of their habitat:
“It’s like when a spaceship finds you wandering half-dead in the desert and decides to rescue you by saying, ‘Humans need water. Let’s put it in the middle of the ocean to save it!”
Indeed, in these tests, evidence of life was found to be stronger in the ‘dry control’ phase, where no water was added to the soil samples.
‘Microbial life forms adapted to survive in dry environments’
Schulze-Makuch suspects that Mars could be home to adapted microbial life forms whose cells contain hydrogen peroxide to draw water from the atmosphere. In 2016, experts from Arizona State University and the National Institute of Health published a study claiming that the Viking findings were “consistent with the biological explanation” that life on Mars was “adapted to survive in a dry environment,” according to the Daily Mail.
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