The scientific community has most newcomers convinced that NASA’s along with their rover known as “Curiosity” is on the verge of announcing that life on Mars existed or presently exist. But some scientist find the organization quite disingenuous. One need not look any further than April 29, 2001, at the 46th annual meeting of the International Society for Optical Engineering (SPIE) in San Diego, California. Indian and British researchers headed by Chandra Wickramasinghe presented evidence that the Indian Space Research Organisation had gathered air samples from the stratosphere that contained clumps of living cells proving there is life beyond planet earth. Wickramasinghe called this“unambiguous evidence for the presence of clumps of living cells in air samples from as high as 41 kilometers, well above the local tropopause, above which no air from lower down would normally be transported.” A reaction report from NASA Ames doubted that living cells could be found at such high altitudes, but noted that some microbes can remain dormant for millions of years, possibly long enough for an interplanetary voyage within a solar system. In 2008, that same world renowned astrobiologist, Chandra Wickramasinghe once again spoke out; this time he claimed that the National Aeronautics and the Space Administration, “NASA,” were hiding evidence that would prove life existed on Mars. In other words, Chandra suggests, NASA has known for years that life existed on Mars. To quote Wickramasinghe, he stated “The discovery of liquid water on Mars combined with earlier discoveries of organic substances in a meteorite that came from Mars, and also of methane in the Martian atmosphere all point to the existence of life—contemporary life on the Red Planet.” Wickramasinghe wasn’t alone with his assertions, other astronomers, exobiologists, and planetary experts agreed with the native Sri Lanka astrobiologist. Wickramasinghe underscored his argument by adding, “I am not speaking of fossilized life but contemporary life.” The professor of applied mathematics and astronomy at the University of Cardiff in Wales also cites the Viking experiment of 35 years ago. “Even as early as 1976, when the two NASA space probes, Viking 1 and Viking 2, landed on Mars, experiments carried out pointed strongly to the existence of active microbial life,” he explained. The experiments conducted included one specifically designed to detect the presence of microbes in the Martian soil. When the experiment was carried out and a nutrient rich liquid was spilled onto the Martian surface “…it frothed up so vigorously exuding carbon dioxide, that a positive detection of life might have been inferred.”
Despite those results, NASA chose to ignore the evidence of life. “…when the NASA scientists looked for organic material, the detritus of living organisms, around the landing site, their experiments yielded negative or ambiguous results. So NASA cautiously concluded, ‘no organics means no life detected,'” the somewhat miffed astrobiologist pointed out.
What Wickramasinghe would like to know is why would such a prestigious organization like NASA withhold such world-shaking information? After all if life is right next door, then the odds are overwhelming that life is thriving throughout the universe.
Wickramasinghe theory as why NASA has held back suggests: “if life was already detected, then there is no need to spend vast sums of money to continue the search.”
The most recent discoveries may vindicate Wickramasinghe after all. There is a growing buzz about data gleaned by NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, specifically over the issue of methane detection on the Red Planet.
On one hand, methane can be geological in origin. But then there’s the prospect that the gas is biotic, or caused by living organisms — meaning it could be the gaseous residue of long-extinct microbes or even the output of Martian organisms alive and well today, a conclusion Wickramasinghe believed was widely known to NASA’s higher ups.
Since its mission began SAM’s goal has been to search for compounds of the element carbon, including methane, that are associated with life. SAM will also explore ways in which those compounds are generated and destroyed in the Martian ecosphere.
According to Goddard’s SAM website, determining the presence or absence of organic molecules would be important science results, as either one would provide important information about the environmental conditions of Gale Crater, where Curiosity touched down on Aug. 5.
Those that have argued against Wickramasinghe, suggests that not enough information is known about the origin of the Mars methane. “The key question about methane on Mars is not its presence, but its variability,” said Chris McKay, space scientist and Mars specialist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. As shown by many engaged in the methane-on-Mars issue, it is known that organics are falling onto the surface of Mars and that ultraviolet light produces methane from them, he told SPACE.com.
“So there will certainly be methane at some level, possibly well below one part per billion,” McKay said.
Malynda Chizek, an astronomy graduate student at New Mexico State University spoke about her research, which is aimed at the possible detection of methane gas on Mars. Chizek is working on computer simulations using the NASA/Ames Mars Atmospheric General Circulation Model to replicate trace gases in the Martian atmosphere. She is using these simulations to predict the amount of methane that might be seen by the Mars Science Laboratory.
“There is an instrument onboard the Curiosity Rover — which landed on Mars in August — capable of measuring methane, but the scientists operating that instrument haven’t made any public announcements of their results yet,” said Chizek. “There have been several claims of methane detection in the past decade, but it is controversial whether or not there is really methane on Mars, because we do not understand how it would get there, and scientists’ observations suggest that it’s varying in abundance on a very quick time scale, which is unexpected.”
The significance of detecting methane on Mars is exciting, Chizek said, because it could lead to evidence of life. Approximately 95% of the methane in Earth’s atmosphere is a product of biology.
To help people understand the volume and significance of methane on Mars, Chizek uses a very earthly creature that produces the gas — cows.
“In a couple of my presentations, I show how many cows would be required to equal the amount of methane that astronomers have observed on Mars,” she said. “Depending on which observations I am looking at, that number is close to five million cows, or roughly 200,000 tons of methane production.”
Researchers are using telescopes on Earth and spacecraft in orbit around Mars to observe methane on Mars.
The Earth-based observations are considered controversial because Earth’s atmosphere has a significant amount of methane, a factor of 100 to 1000 times higher than the published Martian methane detections have stated, which may interfere with the Martian methane signal. The instruments on spacecraft orbiting Mars used for methane detections have a lower methane detection capability than do the Earth-based instruments. Some scientists consider the orbiting instruments to be inadequate for detecting Martian methane.
Chizek said she is using her model to try and trace back the detected methane to its source location to see if it is coming from something like a volcanic source, water chemistry interaction, or bacteria living on or near the surface.
“Mars is thought to be a geologically dead planet,” she said. “If the methane detections are confirmed, and we do not find any signs of bacterial life, this means there are likely some interesting geological processes happening on Mars that we don’t yet know about.”
Chizek is now finishing simulations of her observations and is finishing a paper on the topic co-authored by her adviser Jim Murphy, an associate professor of astronomy, and former NMSU student Melinda Kahre. Kahre now works at the NASA Ames Research Center.
Chizek’s work is funded by a $15,000 NASA space grant. Chizek, who plans to complete her PhD in 2013, is using her Mars research for her dissertation.
“I am now providing predictions on what Mars Science Laboratory scientists might see, based on the other past observations,” she said. “More confirmation will come from MSL itself when it eventually announces whether or not it has observed methane and what sort of variations it might or might not have seen.”
“Methane is really quite a rare gas in hydrothermal/volcanic exhalations; thus a methane detection with the rover would be exciting and could point to biology, especially if detected in relatively large amounts,” Schulze-Makuch told SPACE.com.
“Even more exciting,” Schulze-Makuch said, “would be if the carbon in the methane has an isotopic fractionation that is consistent with biology. If the methane is produced by organisms — for example, metabolism — then we expect a shift to the lighter isotopes. In essence because life is lazy, same effect, with less work compared to inorganically produced carbon.”
Whether any Mars methane detections would be sufficiently high to determine the isotope ratio, Schulze-Makuch said, is a wait-and-see moment. “But it would be very exciting. To try and determine the isotopic fractionation and a good inorganic baseline for carbon would be the next step in my view.”
“If the methane abundance variation has a definite seasonal variation, then it might suggest some sort of biological origin, although there are also some geological mechanisms which might respond to seasonal change,” Chizek said. “If there is a random, sporadic change in methane abundance, then I think it would likely be a geological production or release mechanism.”
Several people have asked how methane and other organics can come from meteorites. Technically the meteors don’t contain methane. It is a byproduct of exposing carbonaceous meteorites to UV light. But there is a caveat, temperature is important in the process. Mars has just enough of a thin atmosphere for the temps to be right for this to occur, but so thin as also to allow plenty of UV light in from the sun.
Wickramasinghe becomes increasingly relevant as arguments against his conclusions continue to be jettisoned. Just a little more than two years ago Scientists ruled out the possibility that the presence of methane gas on Mars is due to meteorites or volcanic activity. Recent research in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters highlighted the hope that the consistent levels of methane on the Red Planet could be the result of microorganisms in the Martian soil that are producing the gas as a “by-product of their metabolic processes,” an argument clearly articulated by Wickramasinghe.
As if he has been waiting patiently, professor Chandra Wickramasinghe just recently pointed out a drop from a meteorite, which was recently auctioned, shows that there was life on Mars due to it being rich in carbon and oxygen two interesting points that have been clearly omitted from present dialectic discussion about Mars.
I would suggests for those interested in the latest results from completed analysis done by the Mars Science Laboratory, keep one thing in mind if nothing else; odds are, they will validate Wickramasinghe claims long ago. That is that there is life on Mars. His more scathing argument suggesting NASA may have known, might not be as farfetched as many were led to believe.