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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 2005 > May > May 6

Scientists Say Life On Mars Likely

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


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

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

"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

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