Phoenix Did NOT Find Mars Life
A media snafu has NASA spokespersons rushing to deny that life has been found on Mars, reported Space.com. For example, Live Science reporter Leonard David said that the White House has been alerted to the potential for new information about life on Mars based on findings from the Phoenix Lander. The apparent secrecy has teased the press into thinking life has been found, when all an Aviation Week reporter had said based on his own inside sources was that instrument data has found something that “is increasingly compelling as another piece in the puzzle of life.” The vagueness of the statement could imply good news or bad news.
The Space.com damage-control article hastened to explain that Phoenix is incapable of finding life. The instruments can detect organic molecules, but not life itself. The reason for caution at the NASA press briefing last week that announced the discovery of water ice (see U of Arizona press release) at the northern latitudes of Mars, where Phoenix set up base camp, is that the scientists want their findings to go through peer review and get published before getting scooped by the popular press. It is normal procedure for findings to be embargoed by the press till formal publication.
Another Space.com article by Andrea Thompson explains what Phoenix is capable of detecting. Organic molecules have not been found at equatorial latitudes because of strong oxidizing processes at work there. One of the main reasons for putting a lander in the polar regions was the hope that organics could survive there. Organics are not a sufficient condition for biology, explained a Johns Hopkins scientist. “Just because there are organic compounds, doesn’t mean that that’s life,”
Leonard David said this reminded him of the 1996 to-do about a Martian meteorite that some scientists said appeared to show evidence for fossilized microbes.
Update 08/05/2008 morning: Space.com and PhysOrg are now reporting that the chemical found may be perchlorate, a highly reactive oxidant that would be bad news for life. The tests are inconclusive at this point.
Update 08/05/2008 afternoon: In order to stem “speculation that has become rampant on the web,” reported Space.com, the Phoenix team is admitting perchlorate has been found, but spinning the story to say that it “may not be harmful to any potential life there and could in fact be a boon to it.” The highly-oxidizing substance could be an energy source, for instance, and some life survives in Earth’s Atacama Desert in spite of the presence of perchlorates. There is a slim possibility the perchlorate came from a solid rocket booster, but the team feels their readings from the Phoenix instruments show it was present in the soil samples. PhysOrg printed a brief report, and later, BBC News and Science Daily denied a NASA cover-up. They reiterated the latest spin that the discovery of perchlorate “was fascinating but made ‘life on Mars’ neither more nor less likely.”
So they did not claim to find any organics, and they found a highly-oxidizing substance that would normally be toxic to life. You’d think after so many years of bad news from Mars (02/18/2008, 01/09/2007, 01/28/2005) that Martian fever would be dead, but look at faith of the believers. Phoenix could find one molecule of tailpipe soot, call it organic, and the press would go bananas. Even if the soot turned out to be residue from the lander’s own thrusters, by then the media will have soaked it for all its evolutionary worth. The Martian Meteorite story launched NASA’s revitalized Mars program and started the new “science” of astrobiology (04/17/2006). Only later did we realize it was scientifically unfounded. We’re all for exploring Mars but NASA had better find better reasons for going than titillating the public with false hopes and dubious inferences from questionable data.
Organics are to life what letters are to a book. It’s not the presence of the letters, but the way they are put together, that signifies life. When looking for life, don’t just follow the water. Follow the instructions (12/30/2002).