From: Terry W. Colvin <fortean1.nul> Date: Thu, 05 May 2005 12:59:54 -0700 Fwd Date: Fri, 06 May 2005 12:28:55 -0400 Subject: Scientists Say Life On Mars Likely Source: Wired Magazine http://www.wired.com/news/space/0,2697,67315,00.html May 2nd 2005 Scientists: Life on Mars Likely By Rowan Hooper Not so long ago it was unthinkable for respectable scientists to talk about life on Mars. Such talk was best left to X-Files fans. But no longer. Evidence is building to suggest biological processes might be operating on the red planet, and life on Mars, many scientists believe, is now more a likelihood than merely a possibility. Tantalizing evidence is accumulating that suggests the red planet is alive, but incontrovertible proof is still lacking. And while the European Space Agency is keen to send a lander to find it, a history of failed life-finding missions at NASA makes Americans more cautious. "The life on Mars issue has recently undergone a paradigm shift," said Ian Wright, an astrobiologist at the Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute at the Open University in Britain, "to the extent now that one can talk about the possibility of present life on Mars without risking scientific suicide." Much of the excitement is due to the work of Vittorio Formisano, head of research at Italy's Institute of Physics and Interplanetary Space. In February, Formisano presented data at the Mars Express Science Conference at Noordwijk in the Netherlands. If scientists had been quietly excited before seeing Formisano's data, they were frenetic afterward. Formisano showed evidence of the presence of formaldehyde in the atmosphere. Formaldehyde is a breakdown product of methane, which was already known to be present in the Martian atmosphere, so in itself its presence is not so surprising. But Formisano measured formaldehyde at 130 parts per billion. To astrobiologists it was an incredible claim. It means huge amounts of methane must be produced on Mars. (While methane lasts for hundreds of years in the atmosphere, formaldehyde lasts for only 7.5 hours.) "It requires that 2.5 million tons of methane are produced a year," said Formisano. "There are three possible scenarios to explain the quantities: chemistry at the surface, caused by solar radiation; chemistry deep in the planet, caused by geothermal or hydrothermal activity; or life," he added. And, with no known geological source of formaldehyde on Mars, it's clear where Formisano's suspicions lie. "I believe there is extremely high probability that microbial subsurface life exists on Mars," he said, while acknowledging that although he believes in Martian life, he can't yet prove it. "What will certainly be needed in the future is a drill on a lander and direct evidence of the existence of Archaea bacteria," Formisano said, adding that he intends to publish his data in a forthcoming issue of planetary science journal Icarus. The European Space Agency certainly wants to send a rover to Mars, and was urged to do so at an international space workshop at Aston University in Birmingham, England, earlier this month. To get a lander on Mars will almost certainly require the involvement, at some level, of NASA. But NASA has its own surface mission planned. Scheduled to arrive in late 2010, the Mars Science Laboratory rover will use an array of instruments to look for evidence of life. "Europe and the U.S. are in a friendly competition to find life first," said Yuk Yung, professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology, "which is healthy for science -- and funding." The race to find proof of life started in earnest in 1996, after NASA scientists published a paper claiming that the Martian meteorite ALH84001 contained evidence of past biological activity. While that claim remains controversial, it kick- started a change in mood about the possibility of present life on Mars. Excitement grew in 2003 when Michael Mumma, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, reported he had detected methane in the Martian atmosphere. Then last year Vladimir Krasnopolsky, of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., made a similar claim about methane. Both researchers had measured methane using ground- based telescopes. But while the issue of life on Mars may have undergone a paradigm shift, it is really only in Europe that scientists are openly excited. In the United States, NASA is cagey. According to Wright at the Open University, NASA is gun-shy about sending up another life-finding Martian probe. "NASA staff probably still remember Viking, which was a mission designed specifically to look for life on Mars, but which found none -- and which subsequently killed off Martian exploration for a couple of decades," he said. "ESA people don't have such baggage."
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