Did Nasa's 1976 Viking mission accidentally wipe out Martian life?

Did Nasa’s 1976 Viking mission accidentally wipe out Martian life?

Image showing a field of red rocks reaching the horizon about two kilometers from Viking 2 in Mars’ Utopian Plain — Nasa/Files

A scientist says NASA may have mistakenly eliminated signs of life on Mars about half a century ago.

However, the scientific community remains divided as to whether these new claims are speculative or a compelling explanation for some previous experiments.

In a June 27 article on Big Think, Dirk Schulze-Makuch, an astrobiologist at the Technical University of Berlin, suggested that after landing on the Red Planet in 1976, NASA’s Viking crew could have collected minuscule, life forms. which are stable and hidden within the Martian rocks.

If these extremophiles were or still are, the tests carried out by the landowners may be mistakenly terminated because of tests that overcome these possible viruses, as explained by Schulze-Makuch.

He admits that this suggestion may cause controversy but it shows that the same extremophiles thrive on Earth and could theoretically live on Mars.

However, some scientists argue that the findings from the Viking mission are less plausible than Schulze-Makuch and others suggest.

The Viking rovers, which include Viking 1 and Viking 2, conducted four experiments on Mars:

  1. Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer (GCMS) tests look for organic, carbonaceous compounds in the Martian soil.
  2. In marked release experiments, metabolism is assessed by introducing radioactively traced nutrients into the soil.
  3. The pyrolytic emission test, evaluates carbon fixation by potential photosynthetic agents.
  4. A gas exchange test assesses metabolism by monitoring changes in the key gases associated with life, such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen, in individual soil samples.

The results of the Viking experiment proved puzzling and have continued to confuse some scientists. Labeled emissions and pyrolytic emissions tests have produced results that indicate the possibility of life on Mars, with small changes in gas concentrations that suggest some form of metabolism.

GCMS also detected traces of organic chlorinate compounds, attributed to pollution from Earth-based cleaning products (subsequent work confirmed the natural occurrence of these compounds on Mars).

However, the gas exchange experiment, considered the most important of the four, produced negative results, leading most scientists to conclude that the Viking experiment did not detect Martian life.

In 2007, a Phoenix resident of NASA, who succeeded Viking, discovered the chemicalperchlorate, a chemical found in explosives, road flares, explosives and Martian rocks.

The general scientific consensus is that the presence of perchlorate and its byproducts can account for the gases found in the first Viking results, successfully solving the Viking problem, as explained by Chris McKay, an astronomer at NASA’s Ames Research Center California.

Schulze-Makuch, however, suggests that the test may have produced false results due to the excessive use of water. He argues that since Earth is a water-rich planet, adding water to the Martian soil may have encouraged life to appear in the dry Martian environment. In retrospect, this approach may have been overly kind.

On land, arid regions such as the Atacama Desert in Chile host bacteria that thrive by living among hygroscopic rocks, which absorb small amounts of the surrounding moisture. Mars also contains such rocks and has a moisture level that could theoretically support similar microbes.

If these bacteria contain hydrogen peroxide, a substance associated with certain forms of life on Earth, they could facilitate the absorption of moisture and contribute to the gases identified in the release test, the Schulze-Makuch theory.

However, large amounts of water can kill these microorganisms. A 2018 study in the journal Scientific Reports revealed that extreme flooding in the Atacama Desert killed up to 85% of native microbes that could not adapt to wet conditions.

Therefore, adding water to potential Martian microbes in Viking soil samples would be like trapping humans in the middle of the ocean. Both organisms need water to survive, but in the wrong places, it can be harmful to them, according to Schulze-Makuch.

Alberto Fairén, an astrophysicist at Cornell University and co-author of the 2018 study, agrees, suggesting that adding water to the Viking experiment could eliminate potentially hygroscopic bacteria and contribute to the contradictory results observed.

It is worth noting that this is not the first time that scientists have suggested that Viking experiments may have been accidentally destroyed by Martian viruses. In 2018, another group of researchers said that heating soil samples could cause an unexpected chemical reaction, which could burn any microbes inside the samples.

However, as McKay argues, some progressive scientists doubt the results of the Viking mission may be due to futile efforts, as it may not be necessary to invoke a form of life to explain these results.

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