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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 1998 > Jul > Jul 8

Mars Life? Rock Hardens The Debate

From: Stig_Agermose@online.pol.dk
Date: Wed, 8 Jul 1998 04:39:33 +0200
Fwd Date: Wed, 08 Jul 1998 08:11:17 -0400
Subject: Mars Life? Rock Hardens The Debate

From: The Philadelphia Inquirer 

http://www.phillynews.com:80/inquirer/98/Jul/07/front_page/MARS07.htm

Stig

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July 7, 1998

Mars life? Rocks harden the debate

By Faye Flam
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

Two years after NASA scientists announced finding what they
thought was evidence of life on Mars -- fossilized remains in a
Martian rock -- experts are dug into two camps -- "no-life" and
"pro-life."

At stake in the debate is what could be one of the greatest
scientific discoveries ever made. An example of life beyond
Earth would hint that life permeates the universe.

Also at stake is the chance to inject a new sense of purpose --
the search for life -- into NASA's multibillion-dollar plan to
send an armada of 13 spacecraft to Mars in the coming decade.
The renewed hope that Mars once harbored life boosted the
excitement over last July's landing of the Pathfinder
spacecraft.

Though Pathfinder and its successor, Mars Global Surveyor, are
considered success stories, many of the missions planned to
follow are back on the drawing board due to cost overruns.
Scientists are questioning whether NASA's plan can really
determine whether there was life on Mars.

The rock that sparked so much hope in 1996 left Mars 16 million
years ago, probably ejected by an asteroid. It wandered through
space until 13,000 years ago, when it smacked into Antarctica.
Since it was found in 1984 in a region called Allan Hills, it
has become known to scientists as ALH84001, or ALH.

At the time the life claim came out, presented by teams from
NASA and Stanford University, much of ALH had been broken into
about 65 pebbles and chips that were distributed to different
laboratories. Since then, many more pieces have been broken off
and studied.

Derek Sears falls into the no-life camp. The meteorite
specialist from the University of Arkansas arrived at a
scientific meeting in Houston last spring with highly magnified
pictures of moon rocks that appeared to be crawling with the
same sorts of wormlike mini-microbes found in ALH.

"See, there's life on the moon," he announced. Then, to be sure
the sarcasm wasn't lost, he explained that these look-alike
lifeforms were really blobs of a metallic coating. It was the
same type of coating that NASA scientists had applied to pieces
of ALH to render it visible under high-powered electron
microscopes.

Facing down such attacks has become routine for the pro-life
side. They say that Sears' fake moon bugs are smaller than most
of their Mars bugs. Blobs of coating may have formed, they
confess, but at least some of the Mars bugs are real.

One reason many scientists say they didn't immediately dismiss
the life-on-Mars finding as some sort of wacky UFO-related claim
was the involvement of Richard Zare, the only member of the team
considered famous. The Stanford University chemist made a name
for himself by pioneering a technique for detecting minute
traces of chemicals using a series of laser pulses.

He got involved in Mars completely by accident in 1995, when
NASA sent his lab two mysterious rock samples, dubbed "Mickey"
and "Minnie." "We didn't want to work with them," said Zare,
"but, you know, you do people a favor."

His lab had been working with NASA on analyzing some dust
particles from space, he says, and NASA was impressed with his
scientists' ability to precisely measure small quantities of
things.

Zare's laser-based analytical contraption detected, among other
things, chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons,
abbreviated PAHs. Sometimes found in charred food and smog, PAHs
are associated with living material, but they can also exist
independently.

"They got very excited," said Zare of his NASA collaborators,
who then proceeded to send him "Goofy."

That's when Zare demanded to know what was going on. He was told
he had samples of a meteorite from Mars, and that there were
some hints that it may have been the home of Martian microbes.

Zare's PAHs didn't stand up as sufficient evidence for life, but
the NASA side of the team, based at Johnson Space Center in
Houston, had found some other lines of evidence, including tiny
microscopic forms that looked like a colony of worms and oval
bacteria.

After a few months of double checking, NASA held a press
conference Aug. 7, 1996, rushed because the news was starting to
leak. "It's an unbelievable day," NASA head Daniel Goldin
announced. "Words cannot describe it."

Zare said he never intended to give the impression that his
lab's evidence for Martian bugs was conclusive. "It was a
hypothesis," he said.

But the announcement didn't quite come out that way.

"I was floored, and fascinated," said Hap McSween of the
University of Tennessee, who earlier that summer had published a
scientific paper arguing that those parts of the rock NASA
claimed harbored the fossil life were formed at blast-furnace
temperatures. His assertion, if right, would rule out the idea
of life.

McSween felt a special attachment to the 12 known Mars-borne
meteorites because he was one of the first people to suggest
some of the rocks had come from Mars.

"I got these funny looks," he said, describing when he first
floated the idea in 1979, but then tests showed that the
composition of tiny gas bubbles trapped inside the rocks matched
that of the Martian atmosphere as measured by the 1976 Viking
missions.

His fascination with the life claim gave way to skepticism, and
he has become one of the most formidable members of the no-life
camp.

To him the best explanation for the data is that the rock
contains a combination of wormlike byproducts from the coating
process plus larger wormlike crystals of magnetite, and that it
was contaminated with Earth life during the 13,000 years it sat
on the Antarctic ice.

To the scientific community, the most credible evidence that the
rock was contaminated came from chemist Timothy Jull at the
University of Colorado.

Jull used a common technique for fingerprinting
carbon-containing materials -- comparing different forms, or
isotopes, of carbon. The relative abundance of the radioactive
form of carbon, C-14, for example, can yield approximate ages.

Jull's isotope work showed that at least 80 percent of the
"organic" material thought to be left from Martian life actually
got there after ALH landed on Earth.

Jull said the other 20 percent of organic material may have
originated on Mars, but he still doesn't buy the NASA claim.
"The litmus test in science is when someone else comes along and
gets the same result," he says. "No one has come along and
verified the whole thing."

Sears, of the University of Arkansas, is less diplomatic.

"The paper is rubbish," he says of the life claim. "It was known
to be rubbish at the time it was published, but it was jumped on
by the NASA administrator."

As part of a scientific team that prepares meteorites found in
Antarctica for study, Sears says, he knows that "they are not
just a little contaminated, they are absolutely filthy -- filthy
with every possible sort of organic crap."

The scientific community would have shot down the life-on-Mars
idea earlier, argues Sears, had so many people not benefited
from publicity surrounding the claim. It helped inject glamour
and money into planetary science and meteorite studies. NASA
funded a new "astrobiology" program to investigate life in the
universe, and gave out grants to further study ALH.

One grant went to John Bradley, a materials scientist at
Georgia-based consulting company MVA Inc., who became the first
to report that the coating process used by NASA creates the
illusion of worms and bugs.

Many scientists have said they won't know whether Mars had life
until a mission goes there and brings back samples, as NASA
plans to do, using robots, in 2005. Bradley warns that this
exercise could result in the same vexing inconclusiveness seen
with ALH. "We have 12 Mars rocks already," he says, "and none of
them show any signs of life."

But the rocks collected from Mars are not likely to be similar
to ALH. Its age of 4.5 billion years far exceeds that of the
vast majority of rocks on Mars. "It's a really unique rock,"
says Ralph Harvey, a planetary scientist from Case Western
Reserve University. "It's one of the oldest rocks, it came from
the deeper part of the Martian crust."

The rock tells a story of the history of Mars, but the way
Harvey reads it, there was no chapter with life.

NASA's David McKay, who headed the team making the life claim,
stands his ground. When Bradley presented his paper suggesting
McKay had inadvertently produced the Mars bugs with the coating
process, "we got a little anxious," McKay said. But when they
figured out how to look at pieces of the rock without using the
coating technique, they still saw some forms that appear to be
real.

Zare is still on the pro-life side, but he sometimes worries
about new evidence that the Antarctic snow where the rock was
found is not as sterile as long thought. "Could Antarctic
microbes have crawled into this rock?" he asks.

The wormy structures and other parts of the life arguments made
by NASA scientists lie outside his expertise. On those things,
Zare says, "I have to trust them."

"There are times I rue the day they sent us those rocks," he
says, though he does see a bright side. The rock turned
attention to space as a place to do science, he says, rather
than simply to "put man into space or beat someone else or
demonstrate engineering prowess."

Even McSween, who worked on the Pathfinder project, sees an
upside.

"Their paper turned out to be important for the space program,"
he says, and the Mars program in particular. "It could be said
to the public that now there's a reason to go."  


=A91998 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.