A Misstep in Martian Exploration: Did We Discover and Then Destroy Life on Mars Half a Century Ago?

As the quest for extraterrestrial life marches on, with the Mars Sample Return program slated to bring back samples from the Martian surface in the early 2030s, a startling theory emerges. It raises the possibility that we may have stumbled upon life on Mars nearly five decades ago, and then inadvertently annihilated it.

MArsIn a time before the Curiosity rover’s tire tracks marked the Martian landscape, two precursors made their mark. NASA’s Viking Project not only bestowed us with the first visuals of Mars’ surface but also embarked on a series of biological tests on the Martian soil. These tests were designed to seek potential signs of life.

The scientific community was baffled by the results. While the majority of the experiments bore no significant findings, one segment did reveal traces of chlorinated organics. At the time, these were dismissed as mere contaminants originating from Earth.

A more intriguing part of the experiment involved adding nutrient-rich water and radioactive carbon to Martian soil. The hypothesis was simple: if microorganisms existed, they would consume the nutrients and release the radioactive carbon as gas. The initial tests detected this gas, but subsequent injections failed to produce the expected results. The promising first finding was attributed to perchlorate, a compound found in fireworks and rocket fuel, which might have reacted with the nutrients.

Yet, Professor Dirk Schulze-Makuch of the Technical University Berlin presents an alternative theory. In his opinion, introducing water to the experiment might have been a fatal error, quite literally killing the very microbes we sought.

Drawing parallels with specific life forms on Earth that thrive within salt rocks and obtain humidity from the air, Schulze-Makuch argues that dousing these microbes with water could have been lethal. This could explain why the additional nutrient injections failed to detect any more radioactive gas. A humorous yet grim analogy: “When you’ve just been drowned by an alien robot, you don’t tend to be all that hungry.”

Schulze-Makuch’s previous work also touched on the possibility that Martian life forms might contain hydrogen peroxide in their cells, providing benefits in Mars’ harsh environment. He argues that this adaptation could explain the Viking results.

He further elaborates that the heating process used by the gas chromatograph mass-spectrometer in the experiment could have been detrimental. If the Martian cells contained hydrogen peroxide, heating would have been fatal, leading to reactions that form carbon dioxide—exactly what was detected.

Though speculative, if Schulze-Makuch’s theory holds true, it paints a dramatic picture of a missed opportunity. It suggests that we might have found, and then unwittingly destroyed, life on Mars almost half a century ago. It’s a narrative that mirrors the actions of antagonistic extraterrestrials in popular cinema, except, in this case, we were the inadvertent villains.

Original Source article  written by JAMES FELTON on IFLScience

Color Image  from Viking Lander 1 credit: NASA JPL