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Mars Space Science

Viking Landers Might Have Missed Martian Organics 82

Posted by samzenpus
from the police-the-planet dept.
Sonny Yatsen writes "A new study suggests that the Viking Landers might have found organic compounds on Mars, but failed to recognize them because of the methodology used to detect organics. The findings may suggest specific strategies that would improve on the way organic compounds are detected on the red planet."
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Viking Landers Might Have Missed Martian Organics

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  • by derGoldstein (1494129) on Wednesday September 08, 2010 @07:06PM (#33515420) Homepage
  • Another New Study... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by DynaSoar (714234) on Wednesday September 08, 2010 @07:06PM (#33515422) Journal

    ... suggests that Carl Sagan said exactly the same thing over three decades ago.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by MrEricSir (398214)

      Makes sense, Sagan was all about the "organics," man.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by MichaelSmith (789609)

        Makes sense, Sagan was all about the "organics," man.

        Yeah no sex bots for him.

      • Makes sense, Sagan was all about the "organics," man.

        He shopped at Whole Foods [wholefoodsmarket.com]?

      • My first take on the submission was that those nice gentlemen with the funny horned helmets should have been looking out for alien organic compounds, but of course Mars is a long way to sail (or even row), no matter how hard you flog your crew...
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by DerekLyons (302214)

      The difference being that Carl Sagan said it (and he said a lot of things), this study has shown it. One is PR puffery, one is science. There is a difference.

    • I thought they tested the experiments in Antarctica (a similar cold dry desert on Earth) and they failed to spot life (when it was there) .....

      • It's worse than that, it was in the desert of arizona or somesuch and they even scattered large bits of animal bone and fossils around, like massive deer skulls and the rover team still didn't find any. [citation needed] i know

      • One of the experiments that missed going to Mars was the "Wolf trap" (designed by Wolf Visniac)

        It has detected life on Earth, and on samples from the Antarctic Dry valleys that had been hand tested for life and shown not to contain any ... (which when retested by hand were found to contain life after all)

  • Dupe? (Score:2, Informative)

    by leromarinvit (1462031)

    TFA says that any organic compounds which might have been found would have been destroyed by heating perchlorate to 200-500C. I remember reading something similar to this a while back here on /. (but I don't have a link handy).

  • They could do the same thing with Mars that I do with milk:

    Sniff it.

    If it smells like there's anything growing in it, throw it out.

    If not, taste a little.

    If it tastes distinctly bitter or sour, throw it out.

    If not, put it back in the fridge until you need it.

  • They would have gone straight for the organics.

    The prettier ones, I'm sure.

  • Actually, they did (Score:5, Informative)

    by scorp1us (235526) on Wednesday September 08, 2010 @07:45PM (#33515692) Journal

    But NASA invalidated the tests [utk.edu]

    The results of these experiments were complex. The first three gave positive results, but the complete absence of any organic compounds in the Martian soil according to the mass spectrometer experiment suggests that the positive results for the first three were not evidence for life, but rather evidence for a complex inorganic chemistry in the Martian soil. Thus, the Viking verdict was that there was no evidence for present or past life on Mars.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Chris Burke (6130)

      An interesting link. But, no, as it says, they didn't find organics. Finding organic (!= biological) compounds is what the 4th experiment was about and it came up negative (other than what they assumed were contaminants), and it's the results of that 4th experiment that are in question today.

      • by QuantumG (50515) * <qg@biodome.org> on Wednesday September 08, 2010 @08:16PM (#33515878) Homepage Journal

        until there's an actual organism located and cultured the correct response is skepticism.

        I, personally, think life doesn't just inhabit niches.. if there's life on Mars anywhere, there should be life on Mars everywhere.

        • Two problems with that theory:
          1) Time. It's possible that we're exploring mars at a time in its lifespan (the lifespan of what we consider to be a planet, I mean) when life has just begun to spread. Even if, given a couple of million years, you'd see it everywhere on the planet, it may be that we're just there early. It's more likely, considering what we know (and/or have deduced) of Mars, that life already existed there, but it was wiped out due to some planet-wide event. In that case, it's possible that
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Bigjeff5 (1143585)

            1 is highly unlikely. Mars is losing its atmosphere at a rapid pace, and has no protection from bio-killing cosmic and solar radiation due to it's lack of a magnetic field. It has no magnetic field because the iron core solidified aeons ago - Mars is much smaller than Earth, and the thing simply cooled down faster.

            It is far more likely that the failing magnetic field would have triggered the death of all Martian life (and it definitely would have, solar radiation in particular is very nasty), and would ex

            • When you place '1' as highly unlikely, which part of it do you mean? When I separated the two "problems with the theory", I split it into two categories, not two scenarios. The '1' mentioned several *ways* in which our timing (the fact that we're exploring Mars *now*) would present a problem. Do you mean it's unlikely that Mars will have life or that is used to have life? According to the separating line ("It is far more likely that the failing magnetic field would have triggered the death of all Martian li
            • It's much easier to find something when people are there, rather than remotely operated machines with a very small, specific number of tests that can be performed.
            • by Ihlosi (895663)
              It really should not be difficult to find traces of it.

              On earth, finding traces of life that existed here millions of years ago does require a bit of effort.

        • by Chris Burke (6130) on Wednesday September 08, 2010 @08:54PM (#33516142) Homepage

          until there's an actual organism located and cultured the correct response is skepticism.

          Not if we're just talking about organic compounds, which I and TFA are. Organic compounds have been found in all kinds of places where life is highly unlikely to exist, like Titan (which has oceans of methane) or gaseous nebulae.

          I, personally, think life doesn't just inhabit niches.. if there's life on Mars anywhere, there should be life on Mars everywhere.

          Eh. Everywhere there's sufficient food and energy, sure. If there's a Martian equivalent to deep-sea thermal vents, where life on earth is theorized to have started, then there might be life all around them but not on the surface where it's easy to find. Or maybe there was life on the surface while there was water there, but not it's no longer suitable.

          The point of this new analysis is to see if maybe Viking really did discover organics, and also to refine techniques for finding them so future missions can do a better job of searching for them. It could in fact be that there is evidence of (former) life everywhere, but we weren't been able to find it due to lacking the proper techniques before. The only way to know is to check.

          In the meantime, sure, skepticism is warranted. I'm not holding out for there being evidence of life on Mars. But I want to know, and this is an important step.

        • by Silpher (1379267)
          May I point out that there are even places on earth where no (surface) life excists. "Mars like desert on Earth" [astrobio.net] I think it could be possible not likely that there is life on mars it's open for debate, heck they're still figuring out if the methane on Mars is biological or geological. "Methane on Mars" [bbc.co.uk]
      • by jd (1658)

        IIRC, the fourth experiment was a very cut-down replacement of the one developed by a team including Carl Sagan, and that Sagan regarded it as somewhat worthless. Whether I got that right or not (and indeed whether Sagan got that right or not) is less important than the fact that there was uncertainty as to what sort of test would indeed be useful. As a trivial example, let's say you've a soil sample containing some sort of organic material where the soil is very reactive with that organic material under th

        • by tftp (111690)

          I would imagine anything remotely close to the surface will have been well-and-truly fried, frozen, refried, then altered in isotopes.

          I'm sure our neighbors from the Vega star system think the same about us. We live in an ocean of oxygen, which is a deadly poison to any known [to them] kind of life.

          • by jd (1658)

            Fried, perhaps - there's plenty of thermophiles that love temperatures other organisms can't stand. The Chuck Norris' of the microbial world. Chemistry alone won't prevent an appropriately-charged particle converting a neutron into a proton (or vice versa), though. Which is actually very handy for people on Earth, as it allows you to determine the age of any exposed rock face with amazing accuracy - and, by implication, the age of any meteorite crater on, say, the moon, where direct evidence is extremely ha

    • by VShael (62735)

      I just read about this, in a book called "13 Things That Do Not Make Sense"

      JULY 20, 1976. Gilbert Levin is on the edge of his seat. Millions of kilometres away on Mars, the Viking landers have scooped up some soil and mixed it with carbon-14-labelled nutrients. The mission's scientists have all agreed that if Levin's instruments on board the landers detect emissions of carbon-14-containing methane from the soil, then there must be life on Mars.

      Viking reports a positive result. Something is ingesting the nut

  • Not failed. (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Could it be that during that time period we didn't fully understand all the chemical processes that could produce the Vikings findings?

    Point is, we know more than we did then. Apply this to any old analysis and it's likely we missed something. Viking didn't fail here. We merely improved our understanding of observed data analysis.

  • Until something moving or reproducing is actually seen in a microscope, this issue will never be settled. Without such direct evidence, the algorithm will likely repeat:

    1. Devise a new test for life
    2. Mars probe results are positive
    3. A plausible inorganic explanation is eventually devised
    4. Go to step 1

  • by bm_luethke (253362)

    OK, here is one of my pet peeves and something I think is plaguing what we call science today (and why it is mostly pseudo-science) - that tone of the article assumes that life existed and we have just not been able to find it. What this means is *we do not know*. True, that means we may have dug it up and not know, but consider the following re-writing of the synopsis:

    "A new study suggests that the Viking Landers used a flawed method to detect organic compounds. Because of the methodology used to detect or

    • by tibit (1762298)

      I agree wholeheartedly.

      In similar vein, I think that people overestimate the value of having certain "important" answers. Do we really care for an "ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything"? What insight would such an answer give us? What would be its predictive power? -- for without one, it wouldn't have anything to do with science, either. I think that 42 should really be the ultimate answer. It's useless, just as any other answer to such a question would be.

      The major problem with ID and simil

    • by Agent0013 (828350)

      Once you choose that life exists outside of our planet you are operating on faith, not science. That it is more likely either true of false is *not* that same things as it *being* true or false

      You make a lot of good points, but nothing in science is ever proven to be True or False. It only fits the theory or it doesn't. There were tests on the Viking lander that did show signs of life.

      Earlier in the discussion thread VShael posted this: http://science.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=1781330&cid=33519006 [slashdot.org]

      Millions of kilometres away on Mars, the Viking landers have scooped up some soil and mixed it with carbon-14-labelled nutrients. The mission's scientists have all agreed that if Levin's instruments on board the landers detect emissions of carbon-14-containing methane from the soil, then there must be life on Mars.

      So one test shows signs of life, and another shows no signs. We still don't know for sure if life was there or not, but it isn't just a made up idea that there was life there and the one tes

  • As I read this, I had a mental image of a NASA lander on Mars, pointing all its sensors one way, while a bunch of little green men stood behind it, making fun of the machine's inability to look backwards.
  • I think it's incredible that those hardy Scandinavian reavers made it off world at all.

1 Sagan = Billions & Billions

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