It was the best of times, and the worst of times. NASA was making new discoveries every day, discoveries that would change the course of science forever, and yet, they could not publish them for fear that it would destroy their government mandate, their public image. The discovery of microfossils on comets that made the news a month ago cannot be told without understanding the history of extra-terrestrials (ET) and NASA. It is a curious tale, with Darwinists embarassed and Designers triumphant except when the press show up, and it may still have even more twists to come, but the saga needs to be told for the sake of our children, and their children's children who may look up through the violet-black skies at the blue star called Earth.
The 1975 launch
of a pair of
billion dollar Viking spacecraft
to Mars was the most ambitious
planetary lander ever proposed or accomplished by NASA, and it contained an extremely complicated, cutting edge instrument to measure the atomic and molecular composition of the Martian atmosphere and soil--the Nier-Johnson double-focussing magnetic mass spectrometer. It also carried the simplest instrument ever devised to measure life--Gil Levin
's labelled release experiment.
The expensive mass spectrometer had an enormous team of top-notch scientists from leading universities including Nier
, the award-winning physicist inventor of this high resolution mass spectrometer that could electromagnetically bring energetic atoms to a sharp focus. To look for life they planned to bake some Martian dirt at 500 C and look for organic molecules (that nasty burnt cookie smell) coming out. The experiment worked nearly as planned (though sulfur in the soil turned out to poison the Palladium concentrator), but nothing was seen. No formaldehyde, no organics. Nothing.
The labelled release experiment
had no famous scientists involved, but a principal investigator
(PI) who had a PhD in environmental engineering, and who had invented an ingenious way to determine if seawater downstream of a sewage plant was contaminated by microbes. He took a sample of possibly contaminated water, mixed it with some radioactive sugar/nutrients, and then monitored the carbon dioxide coming out of the sample with a Geiger tube. If bacteria were present, they grew on the nutrients releasing radioactive carbon dioxide which made the Geiger tube buzz. The rounded bump of the Geiger-tube signal indicated that bacteria were growing, and the shape of the curve determined how many were in the sample at the start. Levin proposed to take a sample of Mars dirt, put on the nutrient, and watch for counts. As a control, he planned to bake the dirt at 500 C and then try the nutrients. The experiment worked flawlessly, on two landers on Mars, repeated two times--the baked soil had no effect, the unbaked soil showed a perfect carbon dioxide bump consistent with sparse bacteria. Mars had evidence of life.
What was NASA to do? Award the Nobel prize to a civil engineer, while the blue-ribbon scientists had nothing? Carl Sagan was an investigator on the camera on Viking, and from his many Cosmos programs, he knew what would happen to NASA if they unwisely announced a sanitation engineer had found evidence of extraterrestrial life. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" Sagan intoned, meaning that engineers are never going to be extraordinary enough to scoop scientists. A weird chemical compound called a "supermetalloperoxide" was postulated to exist in the soil and produce Levin's results. And Levin was told never to publish his conclusions again. (He tried to put them in a Russian journal, but a phone call from the Kremlin to the White House put a stop to it.)
From this point on, the NASA story began to take on the character of a certain Dr Jekyll in a famous story by Robert Louis Stevenson. The data supporting life or some aspect of life would come back from an innovative experiment, and then NASA would quietly bury it. Chris McKay told Levin some 7 years later that it was foolish to interpret his results as life because Mars was as dry as a bone, and life required water. McKay was a rising star in the field of planetary work, snagging his PhD in 1982 and directly going to work at NASA Ames so the mantle of the deceased Sagan fell heavily upon him. He began to assume more and more duties of directing major NASA astrobiology missions, a serious undertaking for such a young PhD. And McKay had made a good point, that life everywhere requires water, and without water, there cannot be life. However, he had made a serious scientific error--the Viking orbiters had taken pictures of the ice caps on Mars and there was no doubt that they had lots of water in them, enough to cover half of Mars with an ocean, but it was all in the form of ice.
So the equivocating began, and Mr Hyde began his scientific appearance. "Mars had ice and was dry, without liquid water because..."
..it was too cold? No, the landers had registered temperatures up into 50's F. Hyde would only talk about average temperatures after that.
...the air was too thin? No, the landers recorded barometric pressures around 6-12 mBar, where 6mBar was the threshold below which liquid water couldn't exist. Even clouds
had been observed. Again, Hyde listed only the lowest barometric pressures.
(Curious how the surface of Mars never dropped below 6mBar, as if there were a phase change at that pressure.)
..there was no geological evidence for water? No, the landers recorded extensive arroyos, canyons, and floodplains that had clearly been carved by water. Hyde proposed liquid CO2 had carved those canyons, despite the physical impossibility for liquid CO2 to exist at 6mBar pressure.
There was even a picture from the European orbiter that showed
a crater full of ice and snow. A subsequent mission
used neutrons to demonstrate extensive permafrost in the soil of Mars.
..the cameras didn't record any evidence of H20? No, in 1979 a whole series of pictures
was taken by both landers showing "frost"which Hyde claimed was CO2 frost
, despite it being far too warm for dry ice to form. And frost-free shadows lay under the rocks as if the flakes had fallen from the sky. Hyde hid those pictures for 20 years, removing them from the archives until they accidently showed up in a NASA publicity poster in 1999. As an authorized investigator on Viking, Gil Levin should have seen these photos the week they came back, but he swore he had perused the archives extensively and never saw them until this poster was scanned and sent to him. Now they are back
in the archives
, but still mislabelled "Frost" rather than the more correct "Snow".
(A complicated explanation now presently on the photo
suggests is is both snow and frost, both CO2 and ice!)
An entire mission, the Phoenix lander
, was sent to Mars twice to "look for water", which was not too risky, since everyone knew it was already there. (Even the sturdy rovers had uncovered ice when their wheels spun.) Sure enough Phoenix found water, but lo-and-behold, it also found "Mr Clean," otherwise known as perchlorate, the same cleanser which had been used to wash the lander before launch. Why was this such a big discovery? Chris McKay tells us why--because perchlorates would have accomplished exactly what the never-found "supermetalloperoxides" were supposed to do--confuse Levin's labelled release experiment. So the billion dollars spent on Phoenix were well spent--they found
the expected ice
, and they disconfirmed Levin.
(Now mind you, perchlorates have chlorine as well as oxygen, and chlorine has a unique, double-peaked atomic mass signature, so if there were parts per billion of chlorine in the soil, Viking's super-sensitive mass spectrometer would have found it, much less the parts per thousand "discovered" by wet chemistry (!!?) experiments on Phoenix. But Mr Hyde is only consistent in his persistence that life doesn't exist.)
We've been back to Mars several times since 1976, and it would seem a slight thing to refly the labelled release experiment, perhaps with some refinements to exclude perchlorates and supermetalloperoxides. Levin has proposed to make "mirror-image" nutrients that despite being chemically identical, are biologically inedible. The perchlorates wouldn't care, the Martian bugs would. Despite such proposals, Levin has been told NASA will never again search for life--only for the environments conducive to life. The Mars Science Lab
is taking another billion or so dollars worth of equipment to Mars including a microscope, but one with a degraded objective that cannot see bacteria and no labelled release experiment. Mr Hyde now has a large army of deputies who carry on the schizophrenic task of "not talking about life on Mars".
So it was with some surprise that Richard Hoover's paper
on microbial fossils on meteorites exploded into the news
. Mr Hyde was caught flat-footed, and after some embarassing moments of not knowing anything about the work, finally settled on an ad hominem attack
on award-receiving NASA scientist Richard Hoover. It was not a well-thought out strategy, as it is already beginning to unravel. This required some triage, and Hyde has now come out with some papers
purporting to show how methodically and carefully the Astrobiology community has been closing in on that elusive creature--extraterrestrial life--and why it differs from the hasty Mr Hoover.
Next Installment . . . Dr. Richard Hoover