Astrobiologist Dirk Schulz-Makuch of the Technical University of Berlin sparked controversy when he suggested that NASA’s Viking landers may have accidentally destroyed potential microbial life on Mars nearly 50 years ago. His controversial hypothesis, published in an article on the Big Think website, sparked debate among experts and reignited debate about the scientific process of studying extraterrestrial life.
In 1976, NASA sent the Viking 1 and Viking 2 lander missions to conduct four different experiments to scan the Martian environment for possible signs of life. These experiments included the use of gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GCMS), a labeled release experiment, a pyrolytic release experiment, and a gas exchange experiment. Each of these experiments aims to understand the metabolic, photosynthesis and respiratory mechanisms that could exist in Martian soil. However, the results of these studies remained a mystery to scientists for decades. Some, such as the labeled release and pyrolysis experiments, suggested the presence of metabolic activity, while others, especially the gas exchange experiment, gave negative results.
Schulze-Makuch points out that a new mission to Mars that focuses on the search for life is needed to test different hypotheses and solve this mystery.
Schultz-Makuch suggests that the Viking landers, designed from an Earth perspective, would likely contain samples of overwatered Martian soil. In the context of Earth, water is often considered the universal solvent that makes life possible. But on Mars, where conditions vary greatly, excess water could be a problem. Schultz-Makuch cites as an example the Atacama Desert in Chile, which is home to extremophile microorganisms that thrive in dry conditions. These organisms are found in hygroscopic rocks that absorb minimal atmospheric moisture. There are suggestions that similar rocks exist on Mars, leading to the question of whether Viking rovers could have destroyed potential microbes on Mars by flooding them with excess water.
According to Schulze-Makuch, a lot has changed in the past half century since the Viking mission. More landers and rovers have explored the surface of Mars more thoroughly, discovering the presence of local organic compounds. This discovery raises questions about whether these compounds were formed through biological processes or are the result of abiotic chemical reactions.
According to a report from Live Science, Alberto Ferrin, an astrobiologist at Cornell University and co-author of the 2018 study, supports Schulz-Makuch’s theory. He argues that excess water may have led to the extinction of microorganisms on Mars, which may explain the inconsistent results of the Viking mission.
On the other hand, Chris McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, argues that later missions such as NASA’s Phoenix lander have offered alternative explanations. MacKay cites the discovery of perchlorates, a class of chemicals also found on Earth, as sufficient evidence to dismiss any speculation about life on Mars.
Although the Schulz-McCuch theory has sparked a lot of controversy, it has highlighted major challenges and potential consequences in the search for life on other planets. Whether Viking missions actually made contact with potential life forms on Mars and then accidentally destroyed them remains a topic of debate and requires further research and perhaps more advanced methodologies in future missions to the Red Planet.
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