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Space Science

Study: Martian Soil Has Signs of Life 382

geoffrobinson writes "Reuters is reporting that a scientist from Germany believes Viking probe data shows signs of life. From the article: "Joop Houtkooper of the University of Giessen, Germany, said on Friday the spacecraft may in fact have found signs of a weird life form based on hydrogen peroxide on the subfreezing, arid Martian surface. His analysis of one of the experiments carried out by the Viking spacecraft suggests that 0.1 percent of the Martian soil could be of biological origin.""
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Study: Martian Soil Has Signs of Life

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  • Alien! (Score:5, Funny)

    by BWJones ( 18351 ) * on Thursday August 23, 2007 @07:09PM (#20337277) Homepage Journal
    Who are we kidding, he's gotta have privileged information. With a name like Joop Houtkooper, he has *got* to be an alien. :-)

    (Just kidding there Joop)

  • Well... (Score:2, Funny)

    by VE3OGG ( 1034632 )
    I for one welcome our hydrogen-peroxide breathing overlords...
  • Hang on... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 23, 2007 @07:12PM (#20337317)
    Viking probe data shows signs of life.

    So the Viking probe data is ALIVE?!!!
  • by tgd ( 2822 ) on Thursday August 23, 2007 @07:15PM (#20337341)
    This isn't anything new... A lot of scientists at NASA thought the same thing 30 years ago.

    When one experiment says yes, and one says no and you can't run them again there will be a lot of debate about what it all means.
  • Data (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jshriverWVU ( 810740 ) on Thursday August 23, 2007 @07:17PM (#20337381)
    Didn't the viking probes reach Mars in the 70's/80's? I find it fascinating that we can still data mine and extract information from a probes dataset from 20-30 years ago. It would be interesting to see how much data (TB? EB?) that was recorded from the Viking mission.

    Imagine what people might learn from data we're getting now from the two rovers on mars.

    • Re:Data (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 23, 2007 @07:41PM (#20337661)
      You're kidding right? The Viking data is often held up as a prime example of data loss through format and equiment obsolecense. I'm surprised you hadn't heard that one.

      Around 1999, Dr.J.Miller wanted to have a look through the data and found it couldn't be accessed anymore. Most of what he did get was reassembled from old paper printouts that other reseacher hadn't got around to throwing out yet.

      Coincidentally, his research was another case of finding signs of Martian life in the old data.

      Here's one version. []
      • by mbone ( 558574 )
        At least the data from the experiment I worked on is still very much with us and in use.
    • Re:Data (Score:5, Interesting)

      by mbone ( 558574 ) on Thursday August 23, 2007 @09:15PM (#20338567)
      Lander 1 was supposed to land on July 4, 1976, but was delayed a few weeks. Lander 2 was just a little later.

      The Viking lander bit rate was low, and there was only comminucation when the Earth was above the horizon, and the radio bandwidth was only 2 MHz, so the data return was pretty tiny by modern standards (from the Landers - the orbiter data rate was consderably larger). My back of the envelope calculations says that the total Lander data return was on the order of a few hundred GB. (Also, in the extended mission, the data collection was slowed, I believe to once per week.)

      Of course, these data are still being mined, and are absolutely crucial to our understanding of Mars dynamics, among other things.
  • Tubular (Score:5, Funny)

    by Climate Shill ( 1039098 ) on Thursday August 23, 2007 @07:22PM (#20337433) Journal
    Mars is one big beach, so peroxided organisms are to be expected.
  • IF its proven.. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by nurb432 ( 527695 ) on Thursday August 23, 2007 @07:23PM (#20337441) Homepage Journal
    If this is proven to be fact ( and i dont think this really *proves* anything. Its still theory ), how is this going to sit with the religions of the world that truly think we are the only ones 'god' created?
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by fimbulvetr ( 598306 )
      They'll just re-interpret the bible saying "Earth" to mean "Earth and Other planets as well" because of translation issues. Just like they did with the Genesis 7 days thing.
      • Re:IF its proven.. (Score:4, Insightful)

        by ushering05401 ( 1086795 ) on Thursday August 23, 2007 @07:36PM (#20337597) Journal
        Extending that concept... God explicitly handed supremacy over all living things to mankind... so if 'the world' becomes interpreted as 'the universe' we are going to have a very difficult time being good neighbors.

        Not that it would be a cakewalk without religious fundamentalism. There will just be one more barrier to overcome before we can hope to deal with the existence of E.T. life in a rational manner.
        • Re:IF its proven.. (Score:4, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 23, 2007 @08:51PM (#20338343)
          Actually, 'the world' DOES mean 'the universe' in some languages. Greek happens to be one of them. The most common Greek word that is translated 'world' is kosmos, from which we get our English word cosmos which means the universe. It is translated world because that usually makes the most sense in context, and sounds the best when rendering a thought in English, but it is not necessarily restricted to 'planet earth'. I don't know about Hebrew, but I suspect it may be similar.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by LWATCDR ( 28044 )
          If you are going to take the word "earth" or "world" and expand it to mean Universe which is probably a valid expansion of meaning since at that time those words meant all of mortal existence. Then the next logical expansion is "mankind" / "Children of God" to mean all intelligent / sentient life.

          So if the teachings of Christ where taken literally any aliens should be considered brothers , friends, and or equals.

          Just to complete your little thought experament for you.

          I find the idea of none terrestrial micr
    • by Shados ( 741919 )
      Same thing that happens everytime something like this is "proven".

      "thats what we were saying -ALLLLLLLLLLLLLL ALONG-, but it doesn't change anything!"
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      The Bible doesn't say anything at all about life forms on other planets. Intelligent life I might have issues with, but microbes? No problem there.
      • by shaitand ( 626655 ) on Thursday August 23, 2007 @07:40PM (#20337645) Journal
        'The Bible doesn't say anything at all about life forms on other planets. Intelligent life I might have issues with, but microbes? No problem there.'

        No worries, if it were intelligent life it wouldn't believe in the bible either.
      • Re:IF its proven.. (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Man On Pink Corner ( 1089867 ) on Thursday August 23, 2007 @08:01PM (#20337827)
        The Bible doesn't say anything at all about life forms on other planets. Intelligent life I might have issues with....

        I'm an atheist. A few weeks ago, a Christian friend asked me, "When you look out at the night sky, across billions of light-years of interstellar space filled with billions of worlds we haven't even imagined yet, aren't you a little afraid that you might be wrong?"

        Your idiotic post made me realize -- way too late, of course -- that I should've asked her the same question in reply.
      • Which bible? (Score:3, Insightful)

        by theolein ( 316044 )
        The Bible doesn't say anything at all about life forms on other planets. Intelligent life I might have issues with, but microbes? No problem there.
        Do you mean the Bible of the Jews and Christians or the Koran? The Tongva people's creation myth? Or what about the Hopi? And who are we to ignore the Hindu world creation epos?
    • If this is proven to be fact ( and i dont think this really *proves* anything. Its still theory ), how is this going to sit with the religions of the world that truly think we are the only ones 'god' created?

      I'm not aware of any religions that have taken a firm stand that life can only exist on Earth, but then again, religions that have predicted a date certain for the end of Creation as unquestionable doctrine more than once (more than once during the 20th Century even) are still going strong, so I don't t

    • I don't know, but I do know of religions that sincerely believe that God created this planet, its life, all the other planets and life on those planets as well. One religion in particular believes that God created intelligent life on other planets.
    • by gral ( 697468 )
      Dude, don't you know everything in space is made up stuff to temp us from Gods true word? The reason dinosaur fossils exist where they do in the crust is because of the great flood.

      The ability of religions to morph 2000 year old text into todays logic is amazing dude. They will take this in stride as well, or ignore.
  • by dontthink ( 1106407 ) on Thursday August 23, 2007 @07:24PM (#20337453)
    Our friend Joop has also published a lot of work on ESP and paranormal activity: r&hl=en&lr=&btnG=Search [].

    I call BS.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Gabrill ( 556503 )
      I find your lack of faith . . . disturbing.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by l0ungeb0y ( 442022 )
      I applaud your logic!

      Why yes, he must most definitely be utterly full of BS.
      And by that logic, so is Newton. He was nutty enough to actually engage in personal undertakings in alchemy and numerology.
      What a crack-pot psuedo scientist, whose entire body of work should be thrown out as BS.

      You sir have shown a remarkable skill in exposing your utter lack of understanding the workings of the creative mind.
      Perhaps, because you are completely lacking this thing known as "creativity".
      • by bcrowell ( 177657 ) on Friday August 24, 2007 @02:10AM (#20340503) Homepage

        And by that logic, so is Newton. He was nutty enough to actually engage in personal undertakings in alchemy and numerology.
        Newton did alchemy at a time when the modern field of chemistry didn't exist. This was a period when the concept of a chemical element was unknown, the periodic table didn't exist, nobody had ever thought of weighing their chemicals or doing any kind of quantitative measurements of reactions, there were no scientific journals of any kind, and people studying what we would now call chemistry were caught up in a tradition in which it was considered normal to keep your results secret and record them in code. Newton basically invented the modern science of physics; I think we can excuse him for not inventing the modern science of chemistry as well. If he'd lived in the 19th century, and chosen to work in the alchemical tradition rather than the newly spawned field of chemistry, then we could rightfully call him a quack, an idiot, or a charlatan.

        Newton was also a closet heretic (didn't believe in the trinity), and wrote gazillions of words of theological silliness. So what? It was religion. It wasn't science, and he didn't claim that it was science.

        Numerology? I call bullshit, unless you just mean something tied up with his religious ideas.

        If any scientist today is a true believer in ESP, etc., then yes, it does call into question that scientist's judgment. The evidence against all that paranormal bullshit is so strong that you'd have to be an incompetent scientist to ignore it.

  • my thoughts... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by daddyrief ( 910385 ) on Thursday August 23, 2007 @07:38PM (#20337617) Homepage
    I am not an expert in space-related fields in any way, but I always thought, if life was discovered somewhere else in the universe, who's to say it remotely resembles anything we have here on Earth? Just as humans are a result of adaptation and evolution to Earth's atmosphere and chemical makeup, I bet the first form of life found outside of Earth is wacky and customized to its home planet's conditions.

    Of course, if the alien being's stage of life is infantile upon discovery, little microbes aren't very exciting. But imagine finding some race that walks on 5 legs with two tails, that is smarter than humans, but dies upon contact with oxygen or something......

    /end speculation :p
    • Why is death upon contact with oxygen special to you? Oxygen is a caustic, dangerous substance, and is necessarily expelled by most life, even life that has evolved in an environment that has plenty of oxygen.

      On Mars, why should that only apply to the plants?
  • by Mundocani ( 99058 ) on Thursday August 23, 2007 @07:38PM (#20337627)
    Here's an article [] with some counter-points to this theory.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by CODiNE ( 27417 )
      So I read the article and found mainly this counter-point :

      But Pace, the University of Colorado microbiologist, thinks there is one very important reason why hydrogen peroxide life is unlikely. "Hydrogen peroxide inside cells is deadly in terrestrial kinds of cells," Pace said. "In fact, that's one way that our cells combat bacteria, by producing hydrogen peroxide locally."

      I'm no scientist, but his reasoning doesn't seem very convincing. There's lots of chemicals that are deadly in our own bodies. He even

      • by tftp ( 111690 )
        This quote simply proves that Martian microbes probably are not "terrestrial kinds of cells." Wasn't it obvious to begin with?
      • Indeed, one need look no further than our back yard, at black smoker dwelling bacteria that consume hydrogen sulfide,
        also a chemical toxic to many forms of life.
    • From link:

      "If we assume these gases were produced during the breakdown of organic material together with hydrogen peroxide solution, we can calculate the masses needed to produce the volume of gas measured," Houtkooper explained.

      Assuming organics is a helluvan assumption.

      For Pace and many other scientists, the definitive experiment performed by the Viking landers was the gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC-MS) test, which was capable of identifying substances by their chemical makeup. That
  • by HalimCMe ( 528821 ) on Thursday August 23, 2007 @07:48PM (#20337719)
    It is clear that we must promptly launch an investigation on whether this "life" believes in a democratic system of government. If not, we should immediately impose sanctions, inform the public their WMDs, and begin planning a military invasion to begin approximately 18 months from now. If the terrorists possess oil and make attempts to trade it under the Euro currency, we must accelerate this plan, using any means possible to defeat this threat to America. It is clear this life poses a terrorist threat to America. We must preemptively strike against us before they bring their War on Terror to our soil.
  • Fine, as long as I don't have to mow it.
  • by jollyreaper ( 513215 ) on Thursday August 23, 2007 @09:00PM (#20338431)
    Actually, the cute girl from marketing made eye contact and winked so this is conclusive evidence that sex may have or will happen at some point in the fullness of time. Or not.

    Sheesh, could we give the sensationalist headlines some rest?
  • by mbone ( 558574 ) on Thursday August 23, 2007 @09:07PM (#20338487)
    I worked on the Viking Lander project (but not on the biology side). Before the landing, NASA published and sent around little promo phamplets describing what a positive (biological) response would be from each of the 3 biological experiments. (Along the lines of, add nutrients to a soil sample, get CO2 out, sterilize the next soil sample, add nutrients, get no CO2, that is evidence for life. No CO2, or CO2 with a sterlized sample, not evidence for life.) I still have mine in my basement.

    Each of the two landers had 3 biological experiements. All six worked fine. All six had a positive response based on the criteria published before landing.

    However, because the mass spectrometer detected no organic molecules (not one of the pre-published tests), these results were ascribed to non-biological causes.

    I could never understand why one of the biological researchers didn't just say, "we have detected life, by our published criteria, but we don't understand it." However, none did.

    Science doesn't always move in the nice linear fashion described in the text books...
    • that's very interesting.
      And I'm very curious about these pamphlets. Would it be too much if I asked you to take a picture of one or two, and post them somewhere? (flickr?) I'd like to have a look if possible...
      • by mbone ( 558574 )
        If I remember I will, but there is nothing secret about it.

        These details are openly available in a bunch of places. It just that at the time those
        of us working on Viking (I was at MIT) followed the tests closely, and at least to me it seemed very disappointing that it passed the tests, but the
        announcement was of no life, which really sucked the press interest out of the story, and the mission.

        What followed was a real gutting of the US Martian research community - most of people I knew at JPL were gone by 19
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      I could never understand why one of the biological researchers didn't just say, "we have detected life, by our published criteria, but we don't understand it." However, none did.

      Dr. Gilbert Levin leader of the labeled release experiment did just that: []

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by mbone ( 558574 )
        Yes, I know he has since, but I don't remember him doing so at any of the press conferences at the time. However, he may have and I missed it. He has
        certainly been consistent in recent times.

        My point wasn't that this proved that there was life, but that they set up a scientific protocol and then violated it as soon as the results
        made them nervous. There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that if the mass spectrometer had detected organics, they would have claimed
        the detection of life. If the only real t
        • by Chemicalscum ( 525689 ) on Thursday August 23, 2007 @11:12PM (#20339541) Journal
          Yes I am a analytical chemist who had just started working with GCMS systems then, at that time Professor Klaus Bieman was regarded as an almost god like figure by those of us involved in gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, the hyphenated technique he founded and he was a figure of great stature in the chemistry community overall. Dr. Gilbert Levin on the other hand was a scientist/entrepreneur little known outside the specialist area of environmental engineering where he developed the labeled release technique.

          The chemists were determined to prove that if their experiment couldn't show the existence of life on Mars no-one else's experiment could and they used their considerable pull in the academic community to influence the outcome of the debate.

          Also I believe Levin has suggested that there may have been fundamentalist Christians in positions of influence in NASA at the time who held deep theological opinions against the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

          He certainly seemed to be fighting against heavy odds. It not only

          has to be viewed as a huge strategic failure of the US space effort
          but also as a failure of the science community to work in the objective manner it is supposed to.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by DerekLyons ( 302214 )

          My point wasn't that this proved that there was life, but that they set up a scientific protocol and then violated it as soon as the results made them nervous.

          Possibly because you misunderstood the protocol - or misunderstood the reason the mass spectrometer was employed. (Or mistook PR material for scientific protocols, as seems likely.)

          Anyhow, the reason the mass spectrometer was included was simple, under a variety of conditions the other experiments could provide false positives. The mass spe

  • Unsung Hero (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Chemicalscum ( 525689 ) on Thursday August 23, 2007 @09:11PM (#20338525) Journal
    For years Dr. Gilbert Levin, leader of the labeled release biology experiment of the Viking project. Has been arguing that the experiment produced strong evidence for life on Mars. []

    In 1997 he presented a paper showing that after 21 years of study of the data he felt that:

    Objective application of the scientific process to 21 years of continued research and to new developments on Mars and Earth forced this conclusion. Of all the many hypotheses offered over the years to explain the LR Mars results, the only possibility fitting all the relevant data is that microbial life exists in the top layer of the Martian surface.

    The main argument against Levin's conclusions was that the Viking lander's Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry (GCMS) experiment showed no evidence for the presence of organic compounds in the Martian soil. As an analytical chemist who has worked in the field of GCMS since before the time of the Viking probes, I have my doubts about the Viking GCMS experiment having enough sensitivity and reliability to exclude the low level presence of organic material in the Martian soil.

    In 2000, Dr. Steven A. Benner published a paper concluding that the Viking GCMS was insensitive to certain organic molecules including those left behind by any microbial life that might have been on Mars. At the same time Dr Joseph Miller reanalyzed the original Viking labelled release experiment data and concluded that it showed circadian rhythms thus supporting the case for Martian life. []

    Now Joop Houtkooper proposes further evidence that Levin was right. I think Levin will go down in scientific history like Wigner the proposer of the continental drift theory in the 1920's, as a researcher whose ideas were scorned by large sections of the scientific community at the time, but that were eventually proved right.

  • by hklingon ( 109185 ) on Thursday August 23, 2007 @09:51PM (#20338869) Homepage
    There is a lot more going on with the whole "Life On Mars" thing than you will see really published anywhere. I'm not saying there are little green men on mars, but it seems like every article I read, this one included, downplays the significance of finding Life Outside Earth. That is a Big Deal.

    If you're interested, there is quite a bit of background material surrounding Life on Mars and the really famous '76 Viking Lander experiments that were completely glossed over in the article.

    One absolutely interesting bit of research (that I'm surprised wasn't mentioned in the article) has to do with circadian rhythms [].

    IIRC the '76 viking lander had 3 types of experiments on board that would conduct various kinds of tests to determine if there was life on mars. One of those was cell respiration.. another a test for known organic compounds or organic materials. Two of the three tests showed signs for life in at least one of the experimental runs.. but the test for "organic material" consistently failed. I met one of the folks at a conference that claimed to have worked on this and he made it very clear that NASA's usual policy was 2/3 experiments w/positive results == Strong Indications for Life. Yet for some reason NASA announced something to the effect of "No Organics, No Life" . He was very bitter about it because he was absolutely convinced there was life on Mars.

    In 2000 someone thought to analyze the cell respiration study that already indicated there was life or at least a life-like biological process. SURPRISE! The cell respiration data seemed to indicate cell respiration with circadian rhythms. Could not possibly be a simple chemical reaction. The whole idea of Circadian rhytms did not even exist in 1976! But the data fits. Not only that, but the rhythm itself was tuned to a martian day! I quietly decided there was life on mars at that moment. See this [] or here [].

    This new article is interesting, but it is Yet Another Analysis of 30 year old data!! I'd love to see what would happen if NASA (or CNN. I'd take CNN) would announce, in big bold letters, "HEY! We found very conclusive signs of life on another planet! Short of going there and looking at the soil under a microscope ourselves, we're 95% sure the planet is not quite dead and has new and unique life!" Maybe I'm cynical but it seems like we should be actually doing modern experiments to compare with the '76 experiments. It seems more like a pissing contest to see which person/group/agency is right more than The Search for Truth and Knowledge. "Why do we need to search for life on mars? We already found out there isn't life, right?"

  • That's where mankind came from before he destroyed Mars and landed on Earth.
  • by DynaSoar ( 714234 ) on Friday August 24, 2007 @12:18AM (#20339939) Journal
    Subject applies to both the analysis and the conclusion.

    Analysis at the time for one test showed negative, the other was inconclusive (not "yes").
    At that point (as Sagan announced) they were cautiously hopeful, since the tests looked at different things, and some forms of life could appear negative to one and not the other. The negative test was replicated in Antarctica and showed negative there too, making that Mars analysis also inconclusive. No idea what Sagan had to say about it then.

    It's unlikely life as we know it could be "based on" H2O2. It'd be far more likely to be based on water and highly tolerant of H2O2. The peroxide would come from ultraviolet from the sun hitting exposed water. I expect pretty much any exposed water (even ice, though the reaction would be slow) would have a fairly high percentage. But the water wouldn't be pure and so the peroxide would break down, keeping it at a low equilibrium. Life as we don't know it might use H2O2 for energy catalyzing it to break it down, pulling in more selectively from the environment or creating its own via an ultraviolet driven photosynthesis-like process.

    To exist in H2O2 living things have to be able to break it down, such as we do using superoxide dismutase. If we didn't, the peroxide would eat (among other things) the walls off our cells because it destroys the lipids that the walls are made of. Germs don't have this mechanism, and that's why peroxide is a good antiseptic. However, with nothing like lipids or their precursors to work with, any Martian life is not likely to have lipid shells. That makes it unlikely the have any similarity to Earth life. Even the (theoretically) first living things on Earth, cyanobacteria, have lipid-based shells.

    So, the news here is that someone's projecting a specific form Martian life might take based on the Viking data. The implication is that if correct, the Panspermia hypothesis probably doesn't hold. On the other hand, there can be a highly complex collection of compounds collecting ultraviolet, making and/or using H2O2, and developing more of itself via an endothremic self-organization process. Life as we don't know it might not be confined to a small, protected, self-contained module, but might be spread over large areas. It stretches the definition of life, but it's about time we do so, so we know it when we find it because "The thing about aliens is, they're alien".

Heuristics are bug ridden by definition. If they didn't have bugs, then they'd be algorithms.