NASA allegedly found strong evidence of life on Mars way back in July 1976.
But the space agency dismissed its own data. Forty-three years later, it still hasn’t repeated the test. And now one of the scientists who was part of the 1976 mission is raising a fuss. Again.
There’s life on Mars, Gilbert Levin believes. We’ve detected it before. We can detect it again. And maybe this time we’ll believe our own eyes. “I believe an effort should be made to put life-detection experiments on the next Mars mission possible,” Levin wrote in Scientific American in early October.
Levin’s renewed push for a repeat of his 1976 test comes amid a wider shift in the science community. Missions to Mars since 1976 in particular haven’t found additional clear evidence of life, but they haven’t ruled out the possibility of life, either. New sensors and space probes have helped scientists to detect literally millions of Earth-like planets that could support life similar to that on our own planet.
Scientists have crunched the numbers and concluded that Earth just doesn’t appear to be all that special in our galaxy, let alone the universe. “There’s essentially no place in the universe we can rule out life existing,” Martin Dominik, an astronomer at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, told The Daily Beast. “There’s so extremely little we can rule out.”
Going back to Mars to look for life the same way we did back in 1976 should be a no-brainer, Levin told The Daily Beast.
In July that year, NASA’s Viking 1 became only the second spacecraft to make a controlled landing on Mars. Viking 2 touched down 4,000 miles away two months later. Deploying on four telescoping legs, the Viking landers began running experiments.
One of them was a version of a simple test that French chemist Louis Pasteur developed in the 1860s. Submerge microbes, or a material you think might support microbes, in a liquid broth. As the microbes metabolize, they’ll produce bubbles in the broth. Evidence of their tiny little lives.
Scientists call that a “labeled release” or L.R. test.
At the time of the Viking program, Levin, who is a World War II veteran, was a NASA engineer. He oversaw Viking’s labeled-release experiment. The landers scooped up some Mars soil, dumped it in a high-tech version of Pasteur’s jar of broth, and scanned for bubbles.
Viking 1 beamed its initial results to NASA on July 30, 1976. “Amazingly, they were positive,” Levin wrote.
“As the experiment progressed, a total of four positive results, supported by five varied controls, streamed down from the twin Viking spacecraft landed some 4,000 miles apart,” he continued. “The data curves signaled the detection of microbial respiration on the Red Planet. The curves from Mars were similar to those produced by L.R. tests of soils on Earth. It seemed we had answered that ultimate question.”
The implications were profound. At least, they could have been profound. If NASA and the public had read the Viking test results the way Levin did, today we all might be living with the certainty that life on Earth isn’t the only life. That humanity isn’t all that special. “The universe, we could conclude, is teeming with life,” Seth Shostak, a scientist with the California-based SETI Institute, which scans space for radio signals from alien civilizations, told The Daily Beast.
But NASA quickly disavowed Levin’s Viking L.R. test. Why? Because the Viking spacecraft also ran tests looking for traces of organic material on Mars. When those tests turned up negative, NASA decided that the L.R. results must be faulty. The agency “concluded that the L.R. had found a substance mimicking life, but not life.”
NASA has maintained that position for 43 years. “The collective general opinion of the large majority of the scientific community does not believe the results of the Viking experiments alone rise to the level of extraordinary evidence,” Allard Betuel, a NASA spokesperson, told The Daily Beast.
But Levin couldn’t shake the feeling that the L.R. tests were accurate. He kept analyzing the Viking data while also taking into account new findings about the nature of microbial life, the composition of Mars’s present and past atmosphere and surface and the frequency of asteroid impacts on Mars and Earth that have scattered matter between the two planets like people “swapping spit,” to borrow NASA scientist Chris McKay’s phrasing.
That planetary “spit-swapping” could be a fundamental underpinning of life in our solar system, scientists say.
In 1997, Levin published a paper concluding that yes, the Viking landers had detected life on Mars back in 1976. The least NASA could do is to send another L.R. test—perhaps a more sophisticated one—to Mars to run the test again, Levin has said.
NASA has declined to do so. “Inexplicably, over the 43 years since Viking, none of NASA’s subsequent Mars landers has carried a life-detection instrument,” Levin wrote.
The space agency insists it’s doing its best to find life on Mars and elsewhere in the galaxy. “One of NASA’s key goals is the search for life in the universe,” Betuel told The Daily Beast.
“Although we have yet to find signs of extraterrestrial life, NASA is exploring the solar system and beyond to help us answer fundamental questions, including whether we are alone in the universe,” Beteul added. “From studying water on Mars, probing promising ‘oceans worlds,’ such as Enceladus and Europa, to looking for biosignatures in the atmospheres of planets outside our solar system, NASA’s science missions are working together with a goal to find unmistakable signs of life beyond Earth.”
But the agency is biased against evidence of life, and has ignored it even when it was plain to see, Levin said. “There is not one single fact that makes life on Mars improbable,” he told The Daily Beast. “For 43 years ‘facts’ and theories have been served up to explain away the Viking L.R. findings, but not a single one, as even NASA now admits, has survived scientific scrutiny.”
“Why will NASA not endorse a study of all current data?” Levin asked. “This was not done since 1976, and much has changed.”
Forty-three years ago, it really was an extraordinary thing to believe in extraterrestrial life. Today, in the science community, at least, it’s becoming commonplace. “Earth is not the center of the universe,” Dominik said. “The Sun is not the center of the universe. Why should we be the only ones?”
We might not have found clear, incontrovertible evidence of alien life. Yet. But even if NASA is correct and the Viking L.R. test was faulty, signs could point toward humanity eventually finding life on, or from, other planets.
Maybe some future L.R. test like Levin’s will return results from Mars that even NASA can’t deny. Maybe SETI will intercept an obviously alien radio broadcast from a distant star system. Maybe little green men will land a flying saucer on the White House lawn and demand to see our leader.
If and when that finally happens, Levin and scientists like him won’t be surprised. When it comes to the existence of alien life, “the evidence has become overwhelming and the claim ordinary,” Levin said.