In a revelation that could rewrite the history of extraterrestrial exploration, a scientist from the Technical University Berlin claims that NASA may have inadvertently discovered – and killed – Martian life during the Viking mission five decades ago. Dirk Schulze-Makuch posits that an experiment conducted in the 1970s, which involved adding water to Martian soil, could have drowned potential lifeforms that may have been present in the planet’s landscape. This bold assertion, while potentially controversial, is rooted in comparisons to Earth’s own Atacama Desert, where certain microbes can survive without rain, and could indeed be eradicated by an excess of water.
The Viking mission, which saw the deployment of two landers on Mars in July and September of 1976, was a landmark venture equipped with a host of instruments designed to detect signs of life and study the planet’s soil and atmospheric properties. Among these tools was the Viking Labeled Release experiment, which initially returned positive results for metabolism, sparking intrigue and controversy. However, a subsequent investigation found no trace of organic material, leading to a ‘puzzling’ set of results, as Schulze-Makuch calls them. The Berlin-based scientist theorizes that the water-containing nutrient solution added to the soil may have been excessive, causing any potential lifeforms to ‘die off after a while.’
Did NASA Discover and Destroy Martian Life 50 Years Ago?
A New Perspective on an Old Mission
Scientist Dirk Schulze-Makuch from the Technical University Berlin has recently proposed a bold claim: NASA may have discovered, and inadvertently destroyed, extraterrestrial life on Mars during the Viking mission in the 1970s. Schulze-Makuch suggests that the Viking Labeled Release experiment, which involved adding water to Martian soil, may have drowned potential lifeforms hiding in the arid Martian landscape. The experiment initially returned results positive for metabolism, although a related investigation found no trace of organic material. Schulze-Makuch’s theory posits that the water and nutrient solution added to the soil may have been too much for the microbes, causing them to die off.
Parallels with Earthly Microbes
This hypothesis might sound far-fetched, but an earthly analogy exists. Microbes living in the salt rocks of the Atacama Desert, a region with a landscape similar to Mars, do not need rain to survive. In fact, an excess of water could wipe them out. Schulze-Makuch argues that Martian life could have adapted to the arid Martian environment in a similar way, existing within salt rocks and directly absorbing water from the atmosphere.
The Controversial Viking Mission
The Viking mission is famous for landing two spacecrafts on Mars in the 1970s: Viking 1 on July 20, 1976, and Viking 2 on September 3, 1976. These landers were equipped with a variety of instruments, including a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer, X-ray fluorescence spectrometer, seismometer, meteorology instrument, and stereo color cameras. These devices allowed them to search for potential signs of life and study the soil and atmosphere’s physical and magnetic properties. However, the results were puzzling. Some tests came back positive, some negative, and small amounts of chlorinated organics were identified.
The Potential for Life on Mars
In a 2007 study, Schulze-Makuch suggested that Martian life could have evolved to incorporate hydrogen peroxide into their cells. This adaptation would provide a low freezing point, a source of oxygen, and hygroscopicity – a condition favoring survival in the Martian environment. If true, the addition of water in the Viking experiments could have led to a harmful reaction, killing the cells and causing the hydrogen peroxide to react with any nearby organic molecules to form large amounts of carbon dioxide, which were detected by the experiment.
The Viking landers continued their missions until the early 1980s but remain on Mars to this day. Subsequent missions have confirmed the presence of native organic compounds on Mars, albeit in a chlorinated form. Schulze-Makuch’s theory offers a new lens through which to view the Viking mission’s mixed results, posing intriguing questions about the past and future of Mars exploration.
The exploration of Mars has always been a topic of great interest and controversy. Schulze-Makuch’s theory, while speculative, provides a fascinating possibility regarding the discovery and inadvertent destruction of Martian life. It serves as a reminder of how much we still have to learn about Mars and the potential lifeforms it may host. Going forward, it underscores the importance of considering all possible life adaptations when designing life-detection experiments for future Mars missions.