An astrobiology professor has claimed that life on Mars was discovered 50 years ago but quickly eradicated. Dirk Schulze-Makuch, a faculty member at the Technical University Berlin, has made the sensational claim, saying we may have got lucky with discovering extraterrestrial life, only to destroy it unintentionally.
Prior to the Curiosity rover, NASA had launched the Viking programme in the mid-1970s – sending two landers to the Martian surface. The mission, ahead of its time, managed to offer the first glimpses of the Martian surface to humankind. Not only that, but the mission also performed biological analysis of its soil, with the primary aim of unearthing indications of life.
The findings in the mission contained numerous geological formations that were consistent with the effects of substantial water flows. The Martian volcanoes and the slopes on it bore close resemblances to those in Hawaii -hinting at their prior exposure to rain.
The landers also identified small amounts of chlorinated organics, initially believed to be contamination from Earth. However, the subsequent Mars missions have confirmed the presence of native organic compounds on Mars, although in a chlorinated form.
One of the Viking experiments involved adding water to soil samples. Water infused with nutrients and radioactive carbon (carbon-14) was introduced to the red Martian soil. The hypothesis stated that if there were potential microorganisms on Mars, they would consume the nutrients and release radioactive carbon as a gas. Initial results indicated this radioactive gas’ emission but the remaining results remained inconclusive.
Schulze-Makuch posits that we might have overwhelmed these potential microbes, leading to their demise.
“Many of the Viking experiments involved applying water to the soil samples, which may explain the puzzling results. Perhaps the putative Martian microbes collected for the labelled release experiments couldn’t deal with that amount of water and died off after a while,” he wrote in a column in Big Think.
“It would be as if an alien spaceship were to find you wandering half-dead in the desert, and your would-be saviours decide, ‘Humans need water. Let’s put the human in the middle of the ocean to save it!’ That wouldn’t work either,” he explained.
Humanity has been searching for life on planets other than our home base to see if we can become an interplanetary species. Mars has long been touted as a potential candidate where this could be possible.
Currently, the Perseverance rover is traversing the rough terrain of Mars. It is part of an international, interplanetary relay team created to unravel the secrets of our neighbourhood planet.
Around 2028, a Sample Retrieval Lander is expected to be launched from Earth, carrying a NASA-led Mars rocket and small Mars helicopters. The lander will land near a crater near the rover and the rocks collected by Perseverance will be loaded upon the rocket.
Notably, the lander needs to be close to the Perseverance rover to facilitate the transfer of Mars samples. It must land within 66 yards (60 metres) of its target site.