Nautilus

Life on Mars, from Viking to Curiosity

After midnight in a sweltering room in Pasadena in July 1976, Viking Mars team members sat hunched around a bulky monotone computer monitor, tensely awaiting the first data from the world’s first successful Mars probe lander, the only Mars lander ever specifically designed to detect life. Over the next weeks each of Viking’s first life-detection experiments came back with a striking signature. As the data trickled back into the Space Operations Facility, it became clear that carbon dioxide was released when organic compounds were added to Martian soil, though not when the mixture was superheated. This was a life signature, and exactly what had happened with the experiment on Earth. When water was added to the soil, oxygen was released, just as on Earth. The remote probe, panning for life, had found its signature in its first two experiments. The third experiment heated the soil, like warming food in the oven, and those results were mixed.

Arguments intensified, however, as the fourth experiment’s conflicting data came in. To claim life on Mars would be unprecedented. If they were wrong, no team member would live it down. Anything was better than striking out with a pompous grin on your face. Unbeknownst to most in the world watching, however, three of the four experiments on the primitive Viking lander could have been interpreted as testing positive for microbes, giving the same results as when they had been checked thousands of times on Earth. The researcher Patricia Straat told another mission staffer, Gil Levin, “That’s life!”

However, the fourth experiment, employing a gas chromatograph of the kind employed by James Lovelock, and a mass spectrometer, a delicate instrument for measuring the size of molecules, showed no life—and not only that, but absolutely no organics—on Mars. That was a stunning result: Organics exist all over space—on asteroids, comets, and

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