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Mars Life? NASA Viking Probes Found Martian Microbes Decades Ago, New Study Suggests

The Huffington Post  |  By Posted: 04/16/2012 4:30 pm Updated: 04/20/2012 3:45 pm

Is there life on Mars after all?

A provocative new study concludes that the twin robotic probes NASA put on Mars in 1976 may have detected signs of "microbial life" on the Red Planet. At the time, researchers concluded that the Viking 1 and 2 probes had detected no such signs--and the same is true of subsequent probes, landers, and rovers sent to Mars, according to Popular Science.

The study involved an analysis of data collected by the so-called "labeled release" apparatus aboard the landers. One of three onboard life-seeking devices, the LR apparatus mixed samples of Mars soil with water and a nutrient solution containing radioactive carbon atoms. The idea was that any microbes in the soil would metabolize the nutrient and release carbon dioxide or methane gas--which would then be detected.

"The minute the nutrients were mixed with the soil sample, you got something like 10,000 counts" of radioactive molecules--a huge spike from the 50 or 60 counts that constituted the natural background radiation on Mars, study co-author Joseph Miller, associate professor of cell and neurobiology at the University of Southern California, told National Geographic. But other experiments on the landers were not backed up by other life-detecting experiements on the landers, according to NatGeo.

So most scientists dismissed the idea that Martian life had been detected.

But using sophisticated mathematical techniques, Miller and his co-authors found evidence that the LR apparatus had detected lifer. Still, according to NatGeo, the researchers conceded that their study isn't enough to prove there's life on Mars. Miller told the magazine he didn't expect people to be convinced of Martian life until they could see a video of Martian microbes in a petri dish.

"But for some reason, NASA has never flown a microscope that would let you do something like that," he said.

What does NASA say about the new study? "There is still enough uncertainty with our knowledge of Mars that more research is required to resolve the question of whether there ever was or is life on Mars," an agency spokesman told The Huffington Post in an email. "The exploration of Mars is about to experience a leap in capability with the arrival in August on the Martian surface of NASA’s Curiosity Rover. One instrument on Curiosity is designed to discover the nature of oxidants in the Martian soil which will shed light on the Viking results."

We can't wait!

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  • Liftoff

    Viking 1 launches from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on August 20, 1975, bound for Mars. A twin spacecraft, Viking 2, followed about three weeks later.

  • The Mission

    Each Viking spacecraft had two parts--an orbiter (top left) and lander (bottom left). After orbiting Mars and scouting for landing sites, the orbiter and lander would separate. Then the lander, protected from intense hear by an "aeroshell," would parachute to a safe landing (right).

  • In Mars Orbit

    This image from June 29, 1976, shows a 30 mile wide swath of Chryse Planitia dominated by Belz Crater. It's known as a "rampant crater" because of the raised ridge around the inner layer of ejecta, material thrown out from a volcano or meteor impact.

  • Landing

    Viking 1 touched down on July 20, 1976, seven years to the day after the first moon landing. Just minutes later, the lander took this photograph, the first picture ever taken in the surface of Mars.

  • Stars And Stripes

    At left, the American flag is seen on the Viking 1 lander with the bicentennial symbol and Viking symbol below. At right, the six foot long rock known as "Big Joe" looms about 25 feet from the lander.

  • First Color Image

    This is the first color image of the surface of Mars, snapped by Viking 1 the day after landing. The rocky wasteland, covered by iron oxide, at last provided an image to match the nickname "red planet."

  • In The Trenches

    Viking 1's sampling arm created a number of deep trenches in the red planet's soil as part of surface composition and biology experiments.

  • The "Face"

    Meanwhile, the Viking 1 Orbiter continued to snap intriguing photos of the surface, like this photo from the Cydonia region that showed what many thought looked like a human face.

  • The View From Orbit

    A Viking 1 Orbiter image from September 1976 shows debris flows east of the Hellas region. The image is about 174 miles across and the debris flows extend up to 12 miles from the source.

  • Red Planet

    A global mosaic from 102 Viking 1 Orbiter images from February 1980 shows a full Martian hemisphere. The view represents what you would see from a spacecraft about 1500 miles high.

  • Volcanic Trio

    A color mosaic from Viking 1's Orbiter shows the eastern Tharsis region. At left, from top to bottom, are the three 15 mile high volcanic shields, Ascraeus Mons, Pavonis Mons, and Arsia Mons.

  • Olympus Mons

    A color mosaic from Viking 1 shows the massive Olympus Mons volcano. The largest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons is about the same size (in area) as the state of Arizona, nearly 375 miles in diameter and 16 miles high. A crater 50 miles wide sits atop the summit.

  • Chandor Chasma

    A color mosaic from both Viking Orbiters shows a part of Valles Marineris known as Chandor Chasma. The walls and floor show evidence of erosion. The Viking 2 Lander ended communications on April 11, 1980, and the Viking 1 Lander on November 13, 1982, after transmitting over 1400 images of the two sites. The Viking 2 Orbiter was powered down on July 25, 1978 after 706 orbits, and the Viking 1 Orbiter was powered down on August 17, 1980, after over 1400 orbits.