June 11, 2009
Michael Brooks, consultant for New Scientist and the author of 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense, sends us a new perspective on the riddle of the empty planet next door
NASA has tried looking for signs of life on Mars precisely once, in the 1976 Viking mission. The result was positive. The reason nobody says there is life on Mars is that another experiment, part of the same mission, couldn’t find any carbon-based “organic” chemicals in Martian soil. This, NASA decided, overruled the other result: with no carbon present, there could be no microbes living on or under the surface of Mars.
Last year, the Phoenix lander repeated the carbon search and failed to find organic molecules. The problem is, we know that there ought to be organic molecules on Mars. Asteroid and comet impacts will have put them there. So what’s going on?
Both of the searches for organic molecules, it turns out, have been deeply flawed. In 2000, the chief engineer on the 1976 experiment finally admitted that his experiment was simply not sensitive enough to overrule anything. Put bluntly, it didn’t work properly – and it never had, even during testing on Earth.
Now a handful of brave NASA scientists have exposed a problem with the latest attempt to pronounce that Mars was dead.
The problem is, as NASA's Douglas Ming (the Merciless) has pointed out in a recent paper, the experiments to search for carbon involve heating soil samples to a few hundred degrees and sniffing the vapours. If the soil contains carbon molecules and perchlorates, the carbon molecules will simply burn up. No wonder they couldn’t find any.
Gilbert Levin, who ran the 1976 experiment to search for life, the one that got a positive result, thinks it’s all down to a religious conspiracy dating back to the early 1960s. When I was researching my book 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense, I travelled to Levin’s Maryland offices and listened to his account of the run-up to Viking. In 1961, he told me, the Executive Director of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, invited him to attend a meeting in Washington. When Levin arrived, he found himself among fifteen of the top scientific minds in the US. None of them knew what the meeting was about until John Olive told them he had been charged by NASA with directing an effort to look for life on other planets.
“Phil Abelson, editor of Science magazine, was sitting next to Dean Cowie, a nuclear physicist,” Levin told me. “He grabbed Dean by the arm and audibly said, “Dean, let’s get out of here. The Bible says there can be no life on Mars.”
I was skeptical at first. No one likes a conspiracy theory more than I, but John Olive died in 1974, Dean Cowie died in 1977, and Philip Abelson died in 2004. There is no independent written source on this secret Washington meeting. And it’s not like the search for life didn’t go ahead.
But I have to admit there is a troubling history here. Rocket scientists joke about the “curse of Mars” because the success rate of spacecraft bound for Mars is lower than 50 per cent. The most famous failure is perhaps the 1998 Mars Climate Orbiter mission, which crashed onto the surface because one team of engineers used imperial units in their design, while the other team used metric.
So, the question remains: have attempts
to explore Mars been secretly scuppered by religious scientists keen to
keep planet Earth “special”? Have they been hiding their sabotage under
a veil of incompetence? Or is it that scientists really can be astonishingly
incompetent without any outside help? Only Dan Brown’s next novel can tell