Mars has always held a certain fascination for me. Around five years of age the 1950s film, War of the Worlds, became my favorite. Eventually, I learned of the book that inspired it — and the radio broadcast by Orson Welles in 1938 that inspired panic in those who tuned in, assuming it to be a broadcast of actual events unfolding. In high school, when I began to pursue my interest in UFOs and all things paranormal, I learned that this incident, in tandem with a portion of the Brookings Report, may have helped to inspire the UFO cover-up.
It was the dawn of my senior year when my interest in Mars was once again reinforced, this time by the front page headlines in the early August newspaper and a speech given by then-president Bill Clinton. It dealt with the potential discovery of life — seeming microfossils of bacteria found in Martian meteorite ALH84001. Until the chorus of skepticism arose and talk of the meteorite burned up, I had cautious hopes that the government agencies that had been working so hard on the cover-up might finally be trying to slowly release information to the public. That naive hope ended almost as quickly as it began, however.
It would be some time before my interest in Mars met another resurgence. The plans Elon Musk has to colonize Mars through his company, SpaceX, and the discoveries made since the end of 90s eventually brought me to wonder far more broadly about the past, present and future of that distant, alien globe — and particularly whether life ever existed there and might even be thriving in some form today.
Mars, our neighboring red planet and the fourth cosmic island from our home star, is a terrestrial or “rocky” planet like our own earthen nest. Though less than half the size of earth, Mars presently provides the same amount of dry land as all our continents squished together yet offers only 38% of earth’s surface gravity. A Martian day is only about about 39 minutes longer than an Earth-day. A Martian year is equivalent to 687 earth-days, however, making the two planets closest in their orbits around the sun only once every 26 months or so, where they are about 35 million miles distant from one another.
Both Earth and Mars are thought to have formed around the same time, which is say 4.6 billion years ago. Early in its history, perhaps around 4.3 billion years ago, Mars had a molten core. Coupled with the spin of the planet, it generated a magnetosphere that protected Mars from solar winds and allowed a thick atmosphere to develop. The Martian soil would absorb gases from the atmosphere and active volcanoes delivered them back — a recycling process that kept the planet warm enough for liquid water to remain on the surface in the form of rivers, ponds, lakes, and a single, mile-deep ocean that covered half of the northern hemisphere.
Then, at a currently estimated 4.2 billion years ago, the molten Martian core began to gradually cool down, and as a consequence most of the magnetosphere was lost. Devoid of its protective field, it was left vulnerable to those solar winds, which slowly pissed away its atmosphere into the depths of the final frontier — a process that continues today. The atmosphere that remains is infested with fine-grain dust particles that give the sky an orange-red or brownish hue during the day and a blue color at dawn and dusk. It is composed of roughly 95% carbon dioxide and minute amounts of other gases such as nitrogen, argon, carbon monoxide, methane, oxygen and water vapor, together producing a slight greenhouse effect. Most of the surface water was vaporized and also piddled into space, but not all of it. Some of it froze and became trapped in the Martian soil, which is presently comprised of 60% water-ice, or manifests as frost during the Martian Winter. Sheets of ice also cover the bases of some craters and even more ice resides deeper underground, such as that which was detected beneath the grounds of Utopia Planitia.
There are also the ice caps which, when the time is right, aren’t quite as icy as we find them today. Mars has long-term wobble to its orbit so that every 5 million years or so its poles tilt 45 degrees toward the sun, causing the ice at the poles to melt. As some have pointed out, on Earth bacteria can be frozen for millions of years, essentially hibernating only to reemerge when the temperature rises again and conditions are favorable for life.
Then there is the liquid water, which persists on Mars even today. First identified by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in 2011 through photos captured by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera, the seasonal dark streaks on Martian slopes (referred to as “recurring slope lineae” or RSL) were ultimately determined by NASA in 2015 to be salt deposits from occasional flows of briny water. Over three years later, in July of 2018, it was reported that the European Mars Express orbiter, through use of MARSIS (Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding), discovered a lake — also likely to be briny and chilled — some 12 miles across and at least three feet deep residing just shy of a mile beneath the southern polar ice cap.
Here on our pale blue dot we have extremophiles that reveal, as their name implies, how life can thrive in such extreme conditions; the same may be true for microbial life in the Martian underground or at the poles. This may even be the cause of the aforementioned methane gas in the Martian atmosphere, which must have a source that constantly replenishes it. It has been shown to spike seasonally, during the Martian summer, and appears associated with areas believed to be hiding ice below the surface.
Though debate still rages as to whether Mars was ever host to life, even in its ancient period of earth-like habitability, American engineer and Arizona State University professor Dr. Gilbert V. Levin insists we had evidence of extant microbial life there as early as 1976. As explained in multiple interviews and videos, Levin was a Sanitary Engineer for the Health Department in the 1950s and would test various water sources for contamination. He would take a sample, put it in a test tube with nutrients and incubate it at a high temperature for 1-3 days. If there were indeed microorganisms in the sample, they would feed on the nutrients and expel gas that would produce tiny bubbles that gave away their presence. The issue, as he saw it, was that it was a three-day affair to wait for those bubbles. He was sure there had to be a way to speed it up and eventually settled on coupling the nutrients with radioactive carbon-14 and replacing the time-consuming practice of bubble-gazing with the sensitivity of radiation detectors. After receiving the necessary funding, he found that his technique cut the test down to roughly an hour.
Ultimately he submitted a proposal to NASA, as he thought this would also prove to be an effective way to test Martian soil for extant microbial life. His test was ultimately funded, selected and improved upon. He also added a control. If the experiment produced a positive result, they would take a separate sample of the same soil and heat it to a degree that would kill any microorganisms but not destroy any chemicals that might produce a false positive. If the control produced a negative, that would imply that they had killed something and that the original experiment had not produced a false positive. In the end, it became known as the Labeled Release (LR) test — one of three used by the two Viking Landers in efforts to detect extraterrestrial microbial life.
In 1975, the twin orbiter/lander probes Viking 1 and Viking 2 were launched from earth. By the following year both took up orbit around Mars, photographed the surface and ultimately broke alien ground safely in the Chryse and Utopia regions, thousands of miles from one another. A long, robot arm extended from each probe, took a soil sample, and brought it into a sealed distribution box. From there it fed portions of the sample into three separate and sealed mini-labs, each specifically designed for the test in question. At both sites a drop of nutrients was squirted on a small amount of soil for the LR test — and radioactive gas was emitted for days. This was far longer, Levin stressed, than would be the case if the cause was a simple, lifeless chemical reaction. For the control, the probe then heated the soil for three hours at 160 degrees celsius, let it cool and then squirt it with radioactive nutrients again. There was no response at all.
As the test produced a positive result and the control a negative one at both sites, the agreed-upon criteria for life detection was technically satisfied. Despite this, NASA and many other scientists were reluctant to accept it. NASA thought that perhaps the ultraviolet light on Mars was much stronger than earth given the reduced atmospheric cocoon and that this accounted for the detected radioactivity of the soil sample. To test this hypothesis, Levin and his co-experimenter, Patricia Ann Strat, talked NASA into making the Viking arm move a rock at dawn and take a soil sample from beneath it. After all, that soil wouldn’t have seen the sun for perhaps millions of years, so this would put NASA’s explanation to the test. They did it. And NASA was wrong: the experiment still produced a positive result.
Ultimately, the original scientific control for the LR test was extended even further, and the results kept reinforcing the notion of Martian life. It was already established that the active ingredient stopped responding altogether when the soil was heated to 160 degrees, but they found that heating it to only 46 degrees produced a response — though one that was only 30% as high as the original experiment. At 51 degrees, it was only 10% as high. Levin hypothesized that these results could be explained by an increasing number of microorganisms being killed off as the heat climbed higher and higher. They also tried the LR on a soil sample that had been stored in the distribution box for two months at about 10 degrees. As would be expected if the positive response came from microorganisms, which would have been killed in such conditions, there was no response in this case.
Altogether, Levin states, they preformed nine experiments on Mars, all of them producing either positive test results or negative controls. In other words, all were consistent with the presence of life on Mars. Despite all this, NASA boldly announced that they had only found evidence of a dead, lifeless wasteland and rejected Levin’s proposals for improved experiments, including a new LR experiment testing for left-handedness and right-handedness of organisms.
Sir Charles Schultz III, author of A Fossil Hunter’s Guide to Mars, credits Levin with the discovery of Martian life but goes even further. He insists that more developed forms of life once lived there — and may still be getting by, even thriving. Through FOIA, he apparently obtained some 200 thousand images of Mars from NASA and, after studying them closely, concluded that they depict evidence suggesting the recent presence of water as well as sea shells and marine fossils such as trilobites. Though NASA allegedly showed some early indications of sincere interest in his work, they have since come to cold shoulder him.
Is NASA ignoring or even covering up the existence of Martian life? In either case, one can’t help but wonder why they would do such a thing.
“The failure to pursue NASA’s highest priority (the search for life in the solar system), and the goal NASA once described as ‘probably the greatest experiment in the history of science,’ cannot be logically explained,” Levin said. “It results from NASA’s fear of finding out that its original conclusion about Viking was wrong, supplemented by philosophical and religious elements who insist, for non-scientific reasons, there can be no life elsewhere but Earth.”
Levin was speaking of microbial life in this case, of course, and seems understandably perplexed and frustrated at NASA’s reluctance to accept the results of decades-old experiments. He stops short of crying conspiracy. Schultz believes there is a cover-up, though also maintains that NASA is releasing the information in bite-size portions over time, leaky embargo style.
Given they know something and have elected to keep it silent, I’m not at all confident that they will ever blow the lid off of it, gradually or otherwise, until they have no other choice but to do so. Nothing and no one seems to be forcing their hand at present, but that time may come once Musk puts his plans to build a Martian colony into action.