spaceSpace and Physics

NASA May Have Accidentally Destroyed Previous Evidence For Life On Mars


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer


A model of the Viking landers. NASA

Don’t you hate it when you travel millions of miles from Earth, only to accidentally destroy the thing you were looking for?

That’s what may have happened with NASA’s Viking landers on Mars in 1976, which were looking for life. While this theory has been touted before, a new paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets adds more evidence to the idea.


As picked up by New Scientist, the theory stems from how the Viking mission was looking for signs of life. Each stationary lander had a scoop to pick up soil, which they then heated to look for organics – the building blocks of life. And they found nothing.

“Shockingly, a main instrument onboard the landers, the GCMS [Gas Chromatograph-Mass Spectrometer], detected no organic matter,” the researchers wrote. “This was a huge surprise to scientists, who knew organic material was deposited by comets and meteorites.”

Later in 2008, NASA’s Phoenix lander found salts on Mars called perchlorate. This could have destroyed any signs of organics in the soil when Viking heated up its samples decades before, and more recent findings seem to support this idea.

That comes from the Curiosity lander. Last month, we learned that the rover had found evidence for organic molecules on Mars, which Viking should also have found. The fact it didn’t suggests something went wrong with the experiment.

Curiosity more recently found organics in Gale Crater on Mars. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Looking through the Viking data, the researchers said they found evidence for a possible reaction between perchlorate and chlorobenzene, one of the organic molecules spotted by Curiosity. Thus, they suggest the Viking landers did indeed discover the building blocks of life all that time ago – although they do note they cannot completely rule out contamination on board from Earth.

“We conclude the chlorine component of the chlorobenzene is martian, and the carbon molecule of the chlorobenzene is consistent with a martian origin, though we cannot fully rule out instrument contamination,” the researchers said.

If confirmed, it would put to bed a major controversy about the Viking mission, namely why it found no signs of life on Mars. It would also mean that while Curiosity’s discovery was groundbreaking, it was beaten to the punch long ago.

Perhaps more importantly, it would suggest that organics are present on Mars in more than one location. While we can’t prove there was past or present life yet, it does further indicate that Mars once contained all the necessary ingredients for life. The next question, of course, is where is it?

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