NASA reverses itself on methane and possible life on Mars

December 17, 2014
Credit: NASA/JPL

Credit: NASA/JPL

Yesterday was a good day for those proposing that extraterrestrial life currently exists on Mars. In a Dec. 16 paper published in the journal Science, NASA says that significant methane levels were detected by the Curiosity Rover over a two month period suggesting that “Mars is episodically producing methane from an … unknown source.” The “unknown source”, as a number of mainstream media articles were quick to point out given what is known about the creation of methane, may be extraterrestrial life, The New York Times published an article titled, “’A Great Moment’: Rover finds Clue that Mars May Harbor Life,” The Guardian wrote “Methane ‘spikes’ fuel speculation of life on Mars.”  ScientificAmerican used as its subtitle: “New results suggest evidence for extraterrestrial life could be near at hand.”  This is not the first time that NASA has released scientific data pointing to life on Mars. On previous occasions, NASA scientists argued over the results. Judging from the number of authors to the Dec. 16 paper, there appears to be rare unanimity. Are we on the verge of a major NASA announcement that reveals life has been found on Mars?

The New York Times pointed out that NASA’s announcement is a major reversal on the position it reached only a year earlier :

“the new findings … are a 180-degree flip from a year ago, when mission scientists said that Curiosity had found no signs of methane,”

The Curiosity Rover also found carbon-based organic molecules the significance of which the New York Times explained from comments given at a News Conference by NASA scientists at the American Geophysical Union:

The scientists also reported that for the first time, they had confirmed the presence of carbon-based organic molecules in a rock sample. The so-called organics are not direct signs of life, past or present, but they lend weight to the possibility that Mars had the ingredients required for life, and may even still have them.

NASA’s announcement is good news for scientists that have claimed that previous scientific data from Mars suggested that life exists there in the form of microbes. The most famous was the “Labeled Release” experiment from the 1976 Viking mission that obtained positive results for evidence of Martian life. The experiment’s designer, Dr Gilbert Levin, thought the results clearly indicated Martian life, but he was not supported by the NASA administration. In a 2012 reassessment of Gilbert’s experiment, he was finally supported by an independent team of scientists who concluded:

The only extraterrestrial life detection experiments ever conducted were the three which were components of the 1976 Viking Mission to Mars. Of these, only the Labeled Release experiment obtained a clearly positive response…. We have applied complexity analysis to the Viking LR data….We conclude that the complexity pattern seen in active experiments strongly suggests biology while the different pattern in the control responses is more likely to be non-biological….These analyses support the interpretation that the Viking LR experiment did detect extant microbial life on Mars.

More controversial are the claims by Richard Hoover, a former NASA senior scientist who claims that in 2004, the Mars Rover, Opportunity photographed what clearly looked like the fossilized remains of a crinoid, a marine animal that looks like a sea lily. Hoover showed it to colleagues who immediately recognized the object as a crinoid. However, rather than examine the exciting possibility that Opportunity had photographed the fossilized remains of a living organism, Hoover said that less than four hours after taking the photo, Opportunity’s rock abrasion tool ground the area where the possible fossil lay into dust. He asked David McKay, the former chief astrobiologist at the Johnson Space Center, why this had been done. The response Hoover received was less than satisfactory.

Gilbert’s and Hoover’s experiences suggest that there are those at a senior level in the NASA administration that have in the past deliberately prevented evidence of extraterrestrial life on Mars being accepted, and even destroyed. This makes NASA’s reversal of its previous conclusions of methane levels on Mars significant, as is the emphasis that the New York Times gives to NASA’s recent backtracking. Has NASA changed its policy on releasing evidence of life of Mars?

Possible support for a recent policy shift can be construed from no less than NASA administrator Charles Bolden who made a surprising statement about life on Mars in an Oct. 9 interview in London:

People always ask the question ‘Why Mars?’ Several reasons: One, Mars is very Earth-like, or least used to be Earth-like. It is a planet, a sister planet to Earth. It is the most likely planet in our solar system, um, that had life at one time… may have life now, and we feel can definitely sustain life.

Was this merely a coincidence, or was Bolden preparing the world public for some surprising future announcement regarding life on Mars? NASA may be simply driven by new scientific data gained by the Curiosity Rover as the Dec. 16 Science article suggests. Alternatively, it may be that there has been a recent policy shift in the higher echelons of NASA, and it is poised to release data finally confirming that life, at least in the form of primitive microbes, does currently exist on Mars.

 © Copyright 2014. Michael E. Salla, Ph.D.

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