Here Come the Martians Again
The “science” of astrobiology was launched when strange markings in a Martian meteorite were interpreted to be evidence of life. Here comes another one.
It’s so 1996, claiming that a Martian meteorite shows signs of life. David McKay’s highly-publicized claim at a NASA news conference is the main reason “astrobiology” was born, a multi-disciplinary effort to explore signs of life in space that has continued ever since. The claims about meteorite #ALH84001 were slowly debunked over subsequent years, but now, McKay’s heirs want to relive those glory days that electrified the press. Space.com announced that “odd tunnels & spheres” in another Martian meteorite dubbed Yamato 000593 “revives debate over ancient Martian life.”
The playbook of the script demands that they don’t claim outright to have found life; just evidence of “something” that “might” have caused unusual structures in the rock. It also calls for justifying the research for other purposes, in case life is ruled out.
The authors of the new research are not claiming they’ve found evidence of ancient life on Mars. In fact, nowhere in their paper do they use the word “life.” (Their preferred term is “biotic activity.”) But their findings revive the debate about the possibility of microbes in Mars’ past and highlight how much information scientists can actually glean from Martian meteorites that end up on Earth.
A team of scientists has found evidence of past water movement throughout a Martian meteorite, reviving debate in the scientific community over life on Mars. In 1996, a group of scientists reported biogenic evidence in the Allan Hills 84001(ALH84001) meteorite. In this new study, researchers focused on structures deep within a 30-pound (13.7-kilogram) Martian meteorite known as Yamato 000593 (Y000593). The team reports that newly discovered different structures and compositional features within the larger Yamato meteorite suggest biological processes might have been at work on Mars hundreds of millions of years ago.
On Live Science, Megan Gannon exercised her hydrobioscopy skills to conjure up visions of life from the possibility of past water in a currently-bone-dry rock: “Though Mars is barren today, scientists think water — a key ingredient for life — would have covered its surface in the form of oceans, rivers and streams.” Nobody wants to imagine streams without trees lining its banks, and fish swimming around. Or at least algae or something. She speaks fondly of old David McKay who died last year: “His loss was very difficult for all of us, but Dr. McKay was an inspiration to me,” Lauren White said. The new paper is largely in his honor, with his name listed as a posthumous author. Mike Wall also joined the commemorations in Live Science: “Meteorite May Harbor Evidence of Mars Life.” Just the suggestion is so special:
The new study, which was published in the February issue of the journal Astrobiology, does not claim that Yamato 000593 harbors conclusive evidence of life on Mars. But the rock may indeed contain something truly special, its authors say.
Chris McKay of NASA-Ames (no relation to David) seems a bit more reserved: “I don’t think the science community will find ‘textural and compositional similarities’ compelling enough to be proof of a biological origin.” Meanwhile, Lauren White of JPL, lead author of the paper in Astrobiology, is starting simple. She is just trying to establish whether the structures formed on Mars or represent contamination from Earth. “To really determine [ancient life on Mars] in a ‘smoking gun’ fashion we would need a sample return mission from Mars — samples free of any contamination,” she said.
Here we go again. This can only mean one thing: it’s funding time at NASA again (1/07/05). The Astrobiology group has nothing to show for itself after 18 years of chasing phantoms. To keep the spigot on the public trough, they have to titillate Congress again (9/01/09). Can they pull it off this time without the enthusiasm of former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin? Doubtful; the government is so badly in debt, many in Congress will find it hard to justify more spending, especially after looking at a few unimpressive little spheres in a piece of dead rock (Congress doesn’t have the same training in divination the astrobiologists use).
JPL really wants a Mars sample return mission. That’s fine, if it fits government priorities and the public can be convinced to cough up the dough. But why does it have to be sold with hype about life? Getting dirt from another planet should be cool enough. We got dirt from the moon that is still revealing information about lunar geology. The same would be true for Mars. We could measure all the perchlorates and other poisons and say, “Thank God we don’t live there!” Drop the L-word and sell the mission as “ground truth.” Wouldn’t that be more scientific? The public would surely go along with it – after they pay back the $17 trillion their leaders spent, sometime in the year 2561. Smarter ones will think, “Hey, Mars delivered its own rocks here free of charge! Why do we need to go get more?” We already have evidence of life on Mars anyway. Isn’t that what the rovers are, intelligently designed objects made by living humans?