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Mars NASA Science

New Study Suggests Mars Viking Robots Found Life 172

Posted by samzenpus
from the it's-alive-alive dept.
techfun89 writes "New analysis of data, now 36 years old, from the Viking robots, suggests that NASA had found life on Mars. This conclusion was published by an international team of mathematicians and scientists this week. The Labeled Release experiment looked for signs of microbial metabolism in soil samples in 1976. The general thinking was that the experiment had found geological not biological activity. However, the new study approached things differently. Researchers broke the data into sets of numbers and analyzed the results for complexity. What they found were close correlations between the Viking results' complexity and those of terrestrial biological data sets. Based on this they concluded that the Viking results were more biological in nature than just geological processes."
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New Study Suggests Mars Viking Robots Found Life

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  • by giorgist (1208992) on Friday April 13, 2012 @08:27AM (#39671883)
    "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"

    So although the data is amazing we need correlation, cross referencing, independent data gathering and ... well a local saying hello der ...
  • by Defenestrar (1773808) on Friday April 13, 2012 @08:55AM (#39672097)

    You should have been counting up, the article already contains the most relevant counter-point: "Critics counter that the method has not yet been proven effective for differentiating between biological and non-biological processes on Earth so it's premature to draw any conclusions."

    Of course, the writer of the article should have read the original paper and at least pointed out the control scheme utilized within the mathematical analysis.

    When a number of terrestrial time series, known to be biological or non-biological, were added to the set of LR experiments, the biological time series automatically sorted with the LR active experiments, and the non-biological time series sorted with the LR controls, forming two distinct clusters on the basis of the complexity variables.

    Finally, one should ask themselves if they trust a bunch of mathematicians who turn out phrases like: "In mathematical terms, the Euclidean distance between the centroids of the two clusters was significantly larger than the intra-cluster distances between any members of either cluster." Any English major could tell you what kind of cluster that sentence is! If that's the way they write, one has to wonder about their expertise in detecting live... it takes one to know one after all. ;)

  • Bad News (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dpilot (134227) on Friday April 13, 2012 @09:17AM (#39672305) Homepage Journal

    Think "Drake Equation". Some time back, someone was referencing the Drake Equation, saying that we'd better hope that the "highly filtering / most likely to fail" hurdles to intelligent life were early ones that we'd already passed. Otherwise they might well still be ahead of us.

    So "early hurdles" are in our favor, meaning we've already passed them, while "late hurdles" are against us, meaning we have yet to pass.

    Things we think we know...

    If interstellar-capable life arises, it should be capable of covering the galaxy within a few million years - on a timescale of billions of years.

    We haven't been contacted - yet. (Depending on the material your hat is made of, some would assert that the government has been suppressing the information that we have made contact.)

    Therefore the Drake Equation (or rather, think "Drake Test") hasn't been successfully negotiated in the past million years or so. It appears that "early hurdles" + "late hurdles" have been impossible, at least so far.

    There is no known life elsewhere in the solar system so far, making those "early hurdles" look hard, leaving some hope that the "late hurdles" might not be so bad.

    But now if there is indeed life on Mars, perhaps those "early hurdles" aren't so hard - maybe the "late hurdles" - the ones we have yet to pass - are in fact the harder ones. Of course to put it into perspective, the evidence of life on Mars is not conclusive, and it's not tall, golden-eyed Martians.

    And of course it's possible that any species that passes the "late hurdles" also comes up with some concept like the "Prime Directive", meaning that they will deliberately hide their presence from us. We have at least conceived of the concept of a "Prime Directive", so perhaps that would be the most comforting interpretation.

  • by crazyjj (2598719) * on Friday April 13, 2012 @09:19AM (#39672347)

    People are always more open to believe what they *want* to believe than anything that contradicts, or even tempers, what they want to believe. And "Possible life detected on Mars" gets a lot more PR and grant money than "Inconclusive results allow for possible model in which life may possibly exist on Mars, but critics point to flaws."

  • by crazyjj (2598719) * on Friday April 13, 2012 @09:21AM (#39672355)

    NASA is too busy these days arguing about climate change and Muslim outreach to bother with anything as mundane as a space program.

  • Recovery (Score:3, Insightful)

    by mdsolar (1045926) on Friday April 13, 2012 @09:35AM (#39672507) Homepage Journal
    Seems to me that it is recovering from eight years of misdirection. The former administration's micromanagement made a huge mess.
  • by Dcnjoe60 (682885) on Friday April 13, 2012 @09:38AM (#39672543)

    Not to argue the science involved, but wouldn't the act of heating the soil to sterilize it effectively change the chemistry, too? For instance, if the soil contained frozen gases or water, those could have reacted in the "biological tests" but, once heated, they would not be present in the control tests. In the 70s it was thought that there wasn't water on mars, so would the tests have been designed to account for water?

  • Re:Recovery (Score:3, Insightful)

    by jesseck (942036) on Friday April 13, 2012 @09:39AM (#39672557)

    Seems to me that it is recovering from eight years of misdirection. The former administration's micromanagement made a huge mess.

    Huh? So the former administration's micromanagement told NASA to cause climate change and ignore Muslims?

  • Perchlorates (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Ken_g6 (775014) on Friday April 13, 2012 @10:01AM (#39672787) Homepage

    Recall that more recent missions have analyzed the soil of Mars, and have found "interesting" chemicals like perchlorates. Chemicals which might mimic the signature of life in this experiment. We need to run a test, on Earth, using the best lifeless analogue to Martian soil we can come up with, including perchlorates, and see if the results match.

  • by martas (1439879) on Friday April 13, 2012 @10:18AM (#39672997)
    English majors have no business judging the quality of technical writing, as they are not remotely qualified to do so. The top priority in technical writing is technical clarity, which trumps everything else. That's not to say that there is no room for optimizing ease of parsing and general aesthetics -- on the contrary, good style for readability is important. But especially when describing the specifics of experimental or analysis methodology, which was the purpose of the sentence you cited, it is well worth ignoring all the good writing guidelines your high school writing professor taught you for the sake of precision, and to avoid any possible ambiguity.
  • by Tom (822) on Friday April 13, 2012 @11:12AM (#39673789) Homepage Journal

    one should ask themselves if they trust a bunch of mathematicians who turn out phrases like

    I'd rather trust a mathematician who has trouble explaining himself clearly to non-mathematicians, but knows his field and his craft, than one who writes poetry during lunchbreak, but whose record in his field is spotty.

  • The biological experimental protocols did not mention the mass spectrometer at all.

    That's pretty much unsurprising. I bet if you go back and look you'll find they didn't mention the weather instruments or the cameras either. Each set of instruments is going to have it's own protocols.
     

    To this day, I feel this was a violation of the pre-launch protocols for the biological experiments. If the mass spectrometer trumped all, why fly the biologicals?

    Because NASA was following basic scientific procedures and guarding against false positives. This was triply important for Viking when they were performing complex chemical experiments (the biological suite) with pretty much zero knowledge of the soil chemistry. There was no way of knowing in advance whether or not something in the soil might cause a false positive, so the mass spectrometer served to determine the soil chemistry in order to analyze the results of the biological experiments.
     

    Because of the way this was handled, this problem has never been investigated further on Mars. We have had successful 4 lander / rovers since then, but no biological tests whatsoever.

    That's because they've changed the strategy for looking for life - away from "pin the tail on the donkey" (blind stabs in the dark like Viking) and towards more basic chemical research. Biological experiments are sexy, but they're meaningless without the proper foundation of knowledge to design them and to interpret their results.
     
    (And seriously, have you been living in a cave the three plus decades? This is all pretty much common knowledge if you've been following Mars exploration for the last fifteen odd years rather than nursing a thirty year old grudge.)

  • by mbone (558574) on Friday April 13, 2012 @03:34PM (#39678179)

    The MER are resolutely geological. That is not even an issue. Ask Steve Squyers what MER is doing, and he will say "geological traverses on Mars." He said exactly those words in plenary at the last LPSC2012. That's what they were intended to do, and that is what Opportunity is still doing.

    There is nothing wrong with that, but I believe in calling things are they are. MER were (and are) a great pair of rovers, and Mars science is vastly better for them being there. If it was up to me I would have sent 4 or 6 more to Mars, 2 in each launch window, and it is a weakness of the present system that no PI could possibly propose such a repeat mission and expect to get it funded. Our knowledge of Mars's geology is very scanty, and there are plenty of places, i.e., perhaps half the planet, that have sufficient surface pressure to land one on and could use a look see.

    But, as I said, there has been no surface biological investigation of Mars since Viking. The questions raised by the LR experiment could have been answered, by the use of samples of two chiralities, but haven't been. That could have been sold to the public, but wasn't. Call it what you will, but to me it represents a pretty spectacular failure of imagination.

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