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Life on Mars? Round 2 from Viking

The buzz about the Viking landers continues. Yesterday at the American Astronomical Society’s meeting in Seattle, two scientists argued that we can reinterpret the data from the Vikings’ 30-year old mission in the light of recent findings regarding life in extreme conditions on Earth. Doing so leads to an intriguing possibility: Viking may have found microbes that use water and hydrogen peroxide to survive in the cold, dry Martian climate.

The researchers are Dirk Schulze-Makuch (Washington State) and Joop Houtkooper (Justus-Liebig-University, Germany). Here’s a link to an early article on this work that explains the beauties of hydrogen peroxide in this scenario. For one thing, its freezing point is low, but even better is the fact that when its temperature drops, it doesn’t form the kind of crystals that can destroy cell structures, as water by itself would.

But how do you protect a cell from the corrosive effects of hydrogen peroxide? From the article:

Schulze-Makuch said that despite hydrogen peroxide’s reputation as a powerful disinfectant, the fluid is also compatible with biological processes if it is accompanied by stabilizing compounds that protect cells from its harmful effects. It performs useful functions inside cells of many terrestrial organisms, including mammals. Some soil microbes tolerate high levels of H2O2 in their surroundings, and the species Acetobacter peroxidans uses hydrogen peroxide in its metabolism.

Microbes built around hydrogen peroxide, so the argument goes, are compatible with all the Viking findings. Of particular interest is the Labeled Release experiment, where samples of Martian soil were exposed to water and nutrients, producing an initial burst of carbon dioxide that later tapered off. Did the result show the presence of organisms that died off as they were exposed to liquid water? It’s a possibility, and not inconsistent with the Pyrolytic Release experiment on the same mission.

CNN handles the story here. For more, see Houtkooper and Schulze-Makuch, “A Possible Biogenic Origin for Hydrogen Peroxide on Mars: The Viking Results Reinterpreted,” available online (PDF warning). It’s also interesting in this context to re-examine Gilbert Levin’s 1997 paper “The Viking Labeled Release Experiment and Life on Mars,” SPIE Proceedings of “Instruments, Methods, and Missions for the Investigation of Extraterrestrial Microorganisms,” (29 July-1 August 1997), available here.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Adam January 9, 2007, 1:56

    Hi Paul

    Life on Mars! Life on Titan! Life on (above) Venus! Where will Schulze-Makuch find life next???


  • Marc January 9, 2007, 7:36

    Truly exciting!
    Just curious, could these microbes have come from Viking itself? Like, perhaps they came from Earth and travelled inside the Viking?

  • Administrator January 9, 2007, 9:08

    Marc, contamination is always a major concern, but as I understand it, the only Earth organisms that use hydrogen peroxide are rare and it’s hard to conceive of a scenario where that kind of contamination could occur from Viking.

  • Dag January 10, 2007, 10:18

    If these organisms exist and if they die off when exposed to water, we have an intricate problem when man arrives with her water and terraforming plans.

  • ljk May 16, 2007, 11:16

    Ancient Microbes Living in Frozen Antarctic Soil May Be
    Model for Life on Mars, According to the Journal Astrobiology


    “Researchers exploring the possibility of finding life forms on
    Mars can look to diverse populations of microorganisms found to
    be living in a similar environment underneath the Antarctic polar
    ice cap, as described in the April issue (Volume 7, Number 2) of
    Astrobiology, a peer-reviewed journal published by Mary Ann
    Liebert, Inc. The paper is available free online.”

  • ljk July 2, 2008, 10:55

    Phoenix diary: Mission to Mars


    We are investigating whether there is at least the potential there. By contrast, over 30 years ago the two Viking landers each carried a set of four experiments on board designed specifically to detect life on the Red Planet.

    One of these experiments mixed a scoopful of the soil with nutrients and looked to see if any of the carbon in these nutrients was given off as gas.

    The results were at first astounding – something in the Martian soil did indeed seem to digest the nutrients and expel gas.

    But the other three experiments were negative. Was Viking seeing life, or chemical reactions between the nutrients and the soil itself?

    It looks like one of the biggest mysteries from previous missions to Mars has been cracked by Phoenix. It was the chemical reactions of nutrients with the chemistry of the soil, not life, that Viking saw back in 1976.

    Full article here:


  • ljk December 19, 2008, 1:28


    Is There Life on Mars?

    Tuesday, December 30, 2008 8 – 9:00 pm

    More than four years after they landed on Mars, NASA’s twin
    robot explorers, Spirit and Opportunity, have lasted 16 times
    longer and driven 20 times farther than expected. Since May 25,
    2008, they’ve had new company on the Red Planet: NASA’s Phoenix
    probe, which dramatically “tasted” water ice on the planet in July.

    NOVA “Is There Life on Mars?” showcases the latest
    scientific results from the rovers and Phoenix, which are
    poised to reveal provocative new clues in the tantalizing
    search for water and life on the Red Planet.

    (CC, Stereo, HD, 1 year)


  • ljk January 27, 2009, 11:45

    The electrification of wind-blown sand on Mars and its implications for atmospheric chemistry

    Authors: J.F. Kok, N.O. Renno

    (Submitted on 23 Jan 2009)

    Abstract: Wind-blown sand, or ‘saltation,’ creates sand dunes, erodes geological features, and could be a significant source of dust aerosols on Mars. The electrification of sand and dust in saltation, dust storms, and dust devils could produce electric discharges and affect atmospheric chemistry.

    We present the first calculations of electric fields in Martian saltation, using a numerical model of saltation that includes sand electrification, plasma physics, and the adsorption of ions and electrons onto particulates. Our results indicate that electric discharges do not occur in Martian saltation.

    Moreover, we find that the production of hydrogen peroxide and the dissociation of methane by electric fields are much less significant than previously thought. Both these species are highly relevant to studies of past and present life on Mars.

    Comments: 4 journal pages, 3 figures, in press at Geophysical Research Letters

    Subjects: Atmospheric and Oceanic Physics (physics.ao-ph); Fluid Dynamics (physics.flu-dyn)

    DOI: 10.1029/2008GL036691

    Cite as: arXiv:0901.3672v1 [physics.ao-ph]

    Submission history

    From: Jasper Kok [view email]

    [v1] Fri, 23 Jan 2009 13:02:12 GMT (328kb)


  • ljk March 5, 2009, 9:09

    Rice Study Hints At Water – And Life – Under Olympus Mons

    by Staff Writers

    Houston TX (SPX) Mar 05, 2009

    The Martian volcano Olympus Mons is about three times the height of Mount Everest, but it’s the small details that Rice University professors Patrick McGovern and Julia Morgan are looking at in thinking about whether the Red Planet ever had – or still supports – life.

    Using a computer modeling system to figure out how Olympus Mons came to be, McGovern and Morgan reached the surprising conclusion that pockets of ancient water may still be trapped under the mountain. Their research is published in February’s issue of the journal Geology.

    Full article here:


  • ljk June 6, 2009, 9:37

    Scarce Shelter On Mars

    by Jeremy Hsu

    for Astrobiology Magazine

    Moffett Field CA (SPX) Jun 05, 2009

    Extremophile bacteria can tough it out in the Siberian permafrost, but the environment of Mars may still be too hostile for such hardy life.

    That’s the finding of a recent study conducted by Andrew C. Schuerger, a microbiologist at the University of Florida and the Space Life Sciences Lab at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and colleagues.

    “Very seldom have microbes that grow well under cold or high salt conditions been subjected to Martian conditions,” said Schuerger.

    Harsh ultraviolet (UV) light proved particularly devastating for the survival of cold-resistant microbes under simulated surface conditions on Mars.

    Such findings not only hone the search for traces of Martian life, but also could help focus NASA’s procedures to prevent contamination of Mars by Earth microbes.

    Full article here:


  • ljk September 21, 2009, 12:00

    September 21, 2009

    Why is Mars Red? New Study Offers Surprises

    Written by Nancy Atkinson

    Is Mars red due to rocks being rusted by the water that once flooded the red planet? And is the only explanation for the hematite found by Mars orbiters and studied by the Mars Exploration rovers is that water once was present in volumes on Mars?

    Not necessarily, says a new study. Research done by Dr. Jonathan Merrison at the Aarhus Mars Simulation Laboratory in Denmark shows that the red dust that covers Mars may be formed by ongoing grinding of surface rocks. Liquid water need not have played any significant role in the red dust formation process.

    “Mars should really look black, between its white polar caps, because most of the rocks at mid-latitudes are basalt,” said Merrison. “For decades we assumed that the reddish regions on Mars are related to the water-rich early history of the planet and that, at least in some areas, water-bearing heavily oxidized iron minerals are present.”

    Full article here:


  • ljk September 28, 2009, 8:42

    Meteorite Impacts Expose Ice on Mars


    September 24, 2009: Meteorites recently striking Mars have exposed deposits of frozen water not far below the Martian surface. Pictures of the impact sites taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show that frozen water may be available to explorers of the Red Planet at lower latitudes than previously thought.

    “This ice is a relic of a more humid climate from perhaps just several thousand years ago,” says Shane Byrne of the University of Arizona, Tucson.

    Byrne is a member of the team operating the orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE camera, which captured the unprecedented images. Byrne and 17 co-authors report the findings in the Sept. 25 edition of the journal Science.

    Full article and images here:


    To quote:

    The ice exposed by fresh impacts suggests that NASA’s Viking Lander 2, digging into mid-latitude Mars in 1976, might have struck ice if it had dug only 10 centimeters (4 inches) deeper. The Viking 2 mission, which consisted of an orbiter and a lander, launched in September 1975 and became one of the first two space probes to land successfully on the Martian surface. The Viking 1 and 2 landers characterized the structure and composition of the atmosphere and surface. They also conducted on-the-spot biological tests for life on another planet.

  • ljk October 27, 2009, 22:39

    A recent Beyond Apollo article describes the Automated Biological
    Laboratory (ABL) which might have landed on the Red Planet as part
    of the original Voyager Mars program developed in the 1960s.

    The New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science (NMMNHS)
    in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is preparing a new exhibit on space
    exploration based “in large part on material on long-term loan from the
    New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo. That material
    included a 1/4-scale ABL model.”

    Images of that model with the article are here:


  • ljk November 30, 2009, 0:57

    November 25, 2009

    New Findings On Alan Hills Meteorite Point to Microbial Life

    Written by Nancy Atkinson

    Scientists caused quite a stir in 1996 when they announced a meteorite had been found in Antarctica that might contain evidence for microscopic fossils of Martian bacteria. While subsequent studies of the now famous Alan Hills Meteorite shot down theories that the Mars rock held fossilized alien life, both sides debated the issue and the meteorite is still being studied.

    Now, Craig Covault in Spaceflightnow.com reports that a new look at ALH84001 provides “evidence that supports the existence of life on the surface of Mars, or in subsurface water pools, early in the planet’s history.”

    Covault says we can expect a public announcement by NASA Headquarters within a few days.

    Full article here:


  • ljk February 8, 2010, 1:35

    The sewage engineer, the ‘Wow! Signal’ and the proof that there really IS life on Mars

    By Michael Brooks

    Last updated at 2:08 AM on 07th February 2010

    Aliens are back in fashion. Even the Royal Society, the most level-headed of scientific establishments, is getting in on the action. Last month it hosted a meeting about the prospects of finding or making contact with extraterrestrials.

    But everyone seems to have forgotten something. Reputable scientists say we have already found aliens – and heard from them, too. Did no one tell you?

    Gilbert Levin, the man who found life on Mars, is now in his 80s but his eyes still sparkle whenever he talks about the day Nasa’s Viking probe touched down on the Martian Plains of Gold. It was July 20, 1976.

    ‘Oh, it was very exciting,’ he told me when I visited his offices in Beltsville, Maryland, a few years ago. A grin broke out across his face. ‘Everything went just right.’

    That includes the experiment he designed to look for the signs of life. Levin is a sewage engineer by training, and it was this that led him to invent a novel way to detect microbes.

    His trick was to put out radioactive food and watch for wisps of radioactive gas belching out as a by-product of microbe digestion. Nasa saw it as an ideal way to test for life in Martian soil.

    Levin’s experiment worked perfectly. Before launch, the apparatus successfully detected the scarce life in soil samples taken from the Californian desert. Two hundred million miles from Earth, it worked again: Levin’s instrument got another positive result from Martian soil samples.

    Levin went out to buy champagne and cigars. A party was in full swing when renowned astronomer Carl Sagan phoned Levin to offer his congratulations. Levin remembers it as the happiest day of his life.

    His unhappiest came just two days later when the Viking mission leader announced they had failed to find life on Mars.

    A colleague dug Levin in the ribs. ‘He said, “Goddamit, Gil, will you get up and tell them you detected life?”‘ But Levin, cowed by his relatively junior status, did not dare.

    The problem was straightforward. Another of the instruments on the Viking mission had searched for traces of carbon in Martian soil and found none.

    With no carbon, the mission chiefs reasoned, there could be no life. The result of Levin’s experiment must have been a mistake, they said. Carl Sagan called again – to withdraw his congratulations.

    The trouble is, the mission chiefs had been misled.

    Full article here:


  • Pablo February 11, 2010, 9:36

    Wow, we’re still talking about this experiment. The bottom line is that Viking didn’t answer the question “is there life on Mars?”. We have to go back and do more experiments.

    Is There Life on Mars?

  • ljk January 8, 2011, 1:09

    Viking landers did detect organics on Mars

    (PhysOrg.com) — In 1976 the NASA Viking landers took samples of soil on Mars and tested them for signs of organic carbon. A reinterpretation of the results now suggests the samples did contain organic compounds, but the results were not understood because of the strong oxidation effects of perchlor…

    Full article here:


  • ljk January 5, 2012, 10:28

    Craters Show 1970s Viking Lander Missed Martian Ice by Inches

    By Alexis Madrigal

    September 24, 2009 | 3:38 pm | Categories: Space

    Scientists have used those images to deduce that there is a lot more ice on Mars — and that it’s closer to the equator — than previously thought. In fact, subterranean Martian ice should extend all the way down beyond 48 degrees of latitude, according to the model, which was published in Science Thursday.

    That happens to be where the Viking Lander 2 was in operation from 1976 to 1980. As part of its science program, the Lander dug a trench about 6 inches deep. The new model predicts that if it had gone an extra 3.5 inches — a bit longer than a credit card — it would have hit ice.

    It’s difficult to project backwards in time what that discovery would have done to the Martian science program, but its impact could have been large.

    “To find ice that far from the pole where Viking 2 was, it would have changed the way everyone looked at Mars for the next 20 years,” said NASA Goddard archivist, David Williams, who curates the Viking project historical site. “It would have been a whole different model for Mars… If they’d dug down just a little more, they’d have this complete opposite view of Mars.”

    Full article here:


  • ljk April 10, 2012, 20:18


    IJASS, vol. 13, no. 1, pp.14-26, March, 2012

    DOI: Aeronautical and Space Sciences

    Complexity Analysis of the Viking Labeled Release Experiments

    Giorgio Bianciardi*, Joseph D. Miller**, Patricia Ann Straat***, Gilbert V. Levin****

    Department of Patologia Umana e Oncologia, Università degli Studi di Siena, Via delle Scotte 6, 53100 Siena, Italy, Department of Cell and Neurobiology, Keck School of Medicine at USC, 1333 San Pablo St./BMT401, Los Angeles, CA 90033, Beyond Center, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 8528

    Abstract: The only extraterrestrial life detection experiments ever conducted were the three which were components of the 1976 Viking Mission to Mars. Of these, only the Labeled Release experiment obtained a clearly positive response. In this experiment 14C radiolabeled nutrient was added to the Mars soil samples. Active soils exhibited rapid, substantial gas release. The gas was probably CO2 and, possibly, other radiocarbon-containing gases. We have applied complexity analysis to the Viking LR data. Measures of mathematical complexity permit deep analysis of data structure along continua including signal vs. noise, entropy vs.negentropy, periodicity vs. aperiodicity, order vs. disorder etc. We have employed seven complexity variables, all derived from LR data, to show that Viking LR active responses can be distinguished from controls via cluster analysis and other multivariate techniques. Furthermore, Martian LR active response data cluster with known biological time series while the control data cluster with purely physical measures. We conclude that the complexity pattern seen in active experiments strongly suggests biology while the different pattern in the control responses is more likely to be non-biological. Control responses that exhibit relatively low initial order rapidly devolve into near-random noise, while the active experiments exhibit higher initial order which decays only slowly. This suggests a robust biological response. These analyses support the interpretation that the Viking LR experiment did detect extant microbial life on Mars.

    Keyword: Astrobiology, extraterrestrial microbiology, Mars, Viking lander labeled release