Life On Mars An Historic Reality, NASA Gears for New Emphasis


Two nuclear powered Viking landers descended to the Martian surface in 1976 carrying biology detection packages with three mutually reinforcing experiments. Both rovers on opposite sides of the planet detected signs of microbial life in one instrument. That data has now been reaffirmed. Photo Credit: NASA Langley Research Center

In a major strategy change, NASA managers say they are anxious to consider direct Mars life detection experiments for new low cost Mars landers that could result from a wholesale Mars program replanning effort now underway.

The change comes as a joint university study has reassessed whether an experiment on the Viking 1 and 2 landers actually discovered life on Mars 36 years ago. The answer then was no, but the answer now is yes.

In what could be a history changing effort, researchers from the University of Southern California, Arizona State University and the University of Seina Italy, found that the NASA Viking landers did find life on Mars. If this finding is sustained it will be an historic discovery that should change the course of human exploration.

The new study specifically determined that the Viking data “Suggests a robust biological response…and support the interpretation that the Viking Labeled Release (LR) experiment did indeed detect extant microbial life on Mars”.

Data from two other experiments on both Viking landers argued against a positive life detection in 1976 based on the understanding of Martian surface chemistry at the time. But that understanding has since proved lacking.

Viking 2 landing site was strewn with volcanic blocks, View is across nuclear RTG power source with American flag while 1976 Bicentinal flag is also on lander to left of "eye chart" for lander cameras. Photo Credit: JPL


After the flagship Viking program’s two orbiters and two landers, one surviving for 6.5 years and the other for 3.5 yrs., NASA’s shifted away from Mars.

No more landers were flown until the Mars Pathfinder rover landed in 1997.

Pathfinder and the Spirit and Opportunity rovers that landed in January 2004, the Phoenix lander in 2008, and now Curiosity set to land August 5 have all been focused on finding the kind of environments that could be conducive to life. All of these made major findings relative to water and chemistry. But they were not outfitted to find life.

Any queries to project managers about searching for life were met with firm replies that the strategy was to “follow the water” so life seeking missions in the future could know where to search. The powerfully scientific Curiosity rover follows in this vein. It is not equipped to find life, they say, and its science team has been tepid about discussing life detection as any part of its mission.


Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover to land Aug 5 is more likely to undertake more life related searches than envisioned earlier. Photo Credit: JPL


But now the NASA Mars team is also more open to specific life detection efforts with Curiosity, openly characterized as such, says Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters.

The rover is already equipped with sensors to detect methane gas that could be given off by microorganisms. But it will also use the magnifying lens on the end of its arm to take color pictures of features as tiny as 12.5 microns — smaller than the width of a human hair. That has always been characterized as a geology tool.

But now Curiosity will more specifically use that capability to look for lichen type growths on or beneath rocks, the same features that Dr. Gilbert V. Levin who designed and led the Viking Labeled Release experiment believes he saw on Mars rocks at the Viking landing sites.

NASA is reformulating the Mars Exploration Program to be responsive to high-priority science goals while dealing with a huge Obama Administration cut in the Mars exploration budget.


In the fall of 2005 the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit became the first vehicle to climb a mountain on another planet. The geology atop Husband Hill was interesting and view was spectacular. Photo Credit: JPL

A Mars Program Planning Group (MPPG) has been established to assist the agency in developing a new strategy for the exploration of the Red Planet. It has begun analyzing options for future robotic missions and enlisting the assistance of scientists and engineers worldwide. Researchers can obtain more information on participating at:

“We’re moving quickly to develop options for future Mars exploration missions and pathways,” said John Grunsfeld, an astrophysicist five-time space shuttle astronaut and associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters.

Grunsfeld leads the agency-wide Mars program reformulation effort along with William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, Chief Scientist Waleed
Abdalati and Chief Technologist Mason Peck.

In February, Grunsfeld named veteran aerospace engineer Orlando Figueroa to lead the MPPG. In March, the group established an initial draft framework of milestones and activities that will include options for missions and sequences bridging the objectives of NASA’s science, human exploration and operations and technology.

The major rock layeres at the Gale crater Curiosity landing site show the diversity of terrain that will be explored there. Photo Credit: DLR


The scientific and technical community across the globe can submit ideas and abstracts online as part of NASA’s effort to seek out the best and the brightest ideas from researchers and engineers in planetary science. Selected abstracts will be presented during a workshop in June hosted by the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

The new strategy also will be designed to maintain America’s critical technical skills, developed over decades, to achieve the highest priority science and exploration objectives.

In 2013, NASA will launch the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution orbiter, the first mission devoted to understanding the Martian upper atmosphere.

There are also Discovery mission candidates for a 2016 Mars mission launch. The new strategy is primarily aimed at the 2018 and 2020 Mars mission opportunities.

Major results from the Curiosity rover will hopefully inform the decision on what kind of mission to fly—an orbiter or a lander and what instrumentation to carry. Figueroa wants to brief the Mars Program on his team’s recommendations by August. NASA will then incorporate the findings in its normal budget planning process.


In this nearly 40 year old image technicians at TRW, now Northrop Grumman, work to assemble one of the biology life detection units with three experiments for each Viking lander. Each unit packed some 40,000 components into a box the size of a car battery. The Labeled Release experiments in both landers each detected the presence of life on Mars, but it could not be verified at the time. Photo Credit: TRW

The new assessment of the Viking data has not only confirmed the 1976 Viking discovery about the presence of microorganisms on Mars, but also that the tiny critters have a circadian rhythm that matched the day/night cycle on Mars for the days the landers were performing the experiments.

The new report is titled “Complexity Analysis of the Viking Labeled Release Experiments” and it has just been published in the International Journal of Aeronautical and Space Sciences (IJASS).

The analysis worked by assigning a numerical value to every element of the experiment, the life detection data, the control data, as well as data collected on extreme forms of life found surviving in conditions that are worse on Earth than on Mars.

Those figures were then tabulated as they moved up and down and compared.

According to the paper, the only extraterrestrial life detection experiments ever conducted were the three which were components of the 1976 Viking Mission to Mars. Of these, only the Labeled Release experiment obtained a clearly positive response.

In this experiment 14C radio labeled nutrient was added to the Mars soil samples. Active soils exhibited rapid, substantial gas release. The gas was probably CO2 and, possibly, other radiocarbon-containing gases, the paper says.

Phoenix lander near Martian arctic circle discovered salty slushy water and perchlorate an extremely important finding. Although poisonous to humans there are extreme organisms on Earth that consume it for energy and food. Maybe the same is true on Mars. Photo Credit: JPL/ University of Arizona


“We have applied complexity analysis to the Viking LR data. Measures of mathematical complexity permit deep analysis of data structure along continua including signal vs. noise, entropy vs. negentropy, periodicity vs. aperiodicity, order vs. disorder etc. We have employed seven complexity variables, all derived from LR data, to show that Viking LR active responses can be distinguished from controls via cluster analysis and other multivariate techniques,” says the report.

“Furthermore, LR active response data cluster with known biological time series while the control data cluster with purely physical measures. We conclude that the complexity pattern seen in active experiments strongly suggests biology while the different pattern in the control responses is more likely to be non-biological.”

“Control responses that exhibit relatively low initial order rapidly devolve into near-random noise, while the active experiments exhibit higher initial order which decays only slowly. This suggests a robust biological response. These analyses support the interpretation that the Viking LR experiment did detect extant microbial life on Mars,” the report concludes.

Map shows how the previous landers are distributed aeound the various terrain of the planet. The deep blue impact basin in the southern hemisphere is the lowest place on Mars likely caused by an asteroid impact. Note how smooth much of the northern hemisphere appears. Researchers believe the northern regions could have been covered by a great sea billions of years ago. Photo Credit: JPL


One Comment

  1. Why has it taken nearly 40 years to perform what is a purely mathematical treatment of the Viking data ?
    I have always believed that LR did indeed find evidence of life and that the GCMS which did not, was so insensitive (recently confirmed using the Qual or Flight spare unit) that it could not even detect Earth based life forms.
    This confirms it for me and strongly suggests the next mission should carry life-detection experiments on it.
    Why not include Prof. Colin Pillinger’s (UK) ex-Beagle 2 Gas Analysis Package (GAP) in the Payload complement, since it is still arguably the most sensitive detector built to-date.

Next Generation Spacecraft No Comparison To Shuttle

NASA astronaut Nicole Stott poses for a photo in front of space shuttle Discovery. Nicole flew as a mission specialist on Discovery last mission, STS-133, and will be at Kennedy Space Center to see the orbiter off on its final flight April 17th; a one-way trip from KSC to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Photo Credit: Mike Killian

Discovery Ready For Smithsonian, Interview With STS-133 Astronaut Nicole Stott