12 Apr 2012

Viking 2 Lander, 1976 showing Utopia Planitia (Credit: NASA)

New analysis of 36 year old data from the Viking robots shows that NASA had found life on Mars in 1976.  This conclusion was published by an international team of mathematicians and scientists this week.

Even more, NASA doesn't need a human expedition to Mars to verify this claim, says neuropharmacologist and biologist Joseph Miller with the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine.  "The ultimate proof is to take a video of a Martian bacteria. They should send a microscope -- watch the bacteria move," Miller told Discovery News.  Miller goes on to say that "On the basis of what we've done so far, I'd say I'm 99 percent sure there's life there."

These statements are derived from the new study that has re-analyzed results from a life-detection experiment done by the Viking Mars robots in 1976.  

The Labeled Release experiment looked for signs of microbial metabolism in soil samples in 1976.  The general thinking was that the experiment had found geological not biological activity.

Scanning for life, Mathematically

However, the new study approached things differently.  Researchers broke the data into sets of numbers and analyzed the results for complexity.  Taking the idea that living things are more complex, they looked at the experiment's results from a mathematics point of view.  What they found were close correlations between the Viking results' complexity and those of terrestrial biological data sets.  Based on this they concluded that the Viking results were more biological in nature than just geological processes.

Some skepticism

Many critics will say that this method hasn't been proven effective for differentiating between biological and non-biological processes on Earth.

Even though there is some skepticism with these results, many feel the findings offer another piece of evidence in challenging the notion that life was not detected with Viking.

A second study coming

Scientists are also re-analyzing the data to look for variations in sunlight blocked by dust storms on Mars.  The idea there is that biological systems would have behaved differently based on environmental changes rather than physical or geological ones.  This latest study's results will be presented in August.

The Tech-Stew Take Home

While this new study does offer a new possibility for checking for signs of life, it has a ways to go before it can really be proven useful and accurate.  The methods of calculation still need fine tuned and calibrated here on Earth to be more effective in places such as Mars.  But either way, there is still not a good substitute for a human presence on Mars.  The amount of useful science that can be obtained on Mars from a human base far outweighs what robots can achieve.  We don't just need to go to Mars to provide proof of life.  To get there and better understand why Mars is now dead, will help us understand exactly how this occurred and consequently use that information to help preserve Earth.  Not only that, but Earth's population continues to escalate, therefore eventually we must branch outward beyond home.  Either way, if mathematical analysis tools such as this one can be fine tuned, they will be useful to both robots and humans in the future.

Source:  ijass.org, news.discovery.com

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