Marsnow. info

Two tests already developed for the 2020 Rover:

 Amino Acid Count and Chirality


by Rick Eyerdam


How will we ever really know if a microbe that is ultimately found down a lava tube on Mars where the water still flows actually began on Mars? How will we know if it was not a passenger to Mars aboard one of our failed Mars missions? How will we know if it wasn’t half the package of microbes that traveled across space and time, one crashing on early Earth and the other on early Mars?

 

The bad news is no matter how much money NASA spends it can never know if life on Mars evolved on Mars, if we finally get there, and Mars life acts just like life on earth. 


The good news is that there are two ways of knowing with some certainty that the galaxy is filled with life different from life on Earth. 


The first method requires far more words and science than many of us are prepared to consume. But it can be explained simply and tested with relative ease. Every living amino acid molecule we know of on earth rotates in the same direction. Earthly living amino acid molecules are left handed and cannot interact with righthanded molecules, though we know right handed molecules exist. If we ever find a living molecule on Mars and it’s amino acid is right handed, we can be pretty sure, almost positive it did not come from Earth. In that case we can feel almost positive the universe is alive.

 

The other absolute test for Earthly life  is the one Francis Crick provided, before space flight, during his Nobel address back in 1961.

 

Crick pointed out , “It now seems certain that the amino acid sequence of any protein is determined by the sequence of bases in some region of a particular nucleic acid molecule. Twenty different kinds of amino acid are commonly found in protein, and four main kinds of base occur in nucleic acid. The genetic code describes the way in which a sequence of twenty or more things is determined by a sequence of four things of a different type.”

 

Crick continued, “It is hardly necessary to stress the biological importance of the problem. It seems likely that most if not all the genetic information in any organism is carried by nucleic acid - usually by DNA, although certain small viruses use RNA as their genetic material. It is probable that much of this information is used to determine the amino acid sequence of the proteins of that organism.”

 

And here is the denoument, “It is one of the more striking generalizations of biochemistry - which surprisingly is hardly ever mentioned in the biochemical textbooks - that the twenty amino acids and the four bases, are, with minor reservations, the same throughout Nature,” Crick told the Nobel audience.

 

And that is the second test. We will know we have life that is like life on earth because earthly life uses only the same twenty of the thousands of amino acids and four base pairs to retain and convey its genetic code. We go to Mars to count amino acids and see if they are left handed. And there is no logical reason, other than hubris, to go to Mars if we cannot build experiments that can do just that perfectly, every time.

 

The conclusion is similar to Bruce Murray’s worry when he and Carl Sagan were debating the merits of the Viking Mission back in 1972.

 

“There are great hopes placed on the mission by American scientists,” Murray said. “But I personally continue to doubt that even as complex and expensive a robot as Viking is capable of carrying out so difficult a task as the unambiguous detection of life on a foreign planet by remote means.”

 

On the other hand the late David McKay, former chief of astrobiology at NASA's Johnson Space Centre in Houston, said in 2010 the fact that Mars has bred life would be confirmed in 2010 and the historic discovery would not be made on the Mars, but here on Earth examining the famous Mars meteorite ALH 8401 with the very latest laboratory equipment.

 

He was half correct. In fact the ALH 8401 was scrutinized by even more precise microscopes and a herd of young scholars over 14 years. And by 2010 only McKay retained any hope that he had discovered very tiny nanobacteria in the Mars meteorite. The rest of science, including his scientist brother, had rejected McKay’s conclusions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

STEALTH LIFE DETECTION INSTRUMENTS ABOARD CURIOSITY
Gilbert V. Levin
Adjunct Professor, Beyond Center, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Arizona
State University
Honorary Professor, Centre for Astrobiology, University of Buckingham (UK)
 
ABSTRACT
NASA has often stated (e.g. MSL Science Corner1) that it’s Mars Science
Laboratory (MSL), “Curiosity,” Mission to Mars carries no life detection
experiments. This is in keeping with NASA’s 36-year explicit ban on such, imposed
immediately after the 1976 Viking Mission to Mars. The space agency attributes the
ban to the “ambiguity” of that Mission’s Labeled Release (LR) life detection
experiment, fearing an adverse effect on the space program should a similar
“inconclusive” result come from a new robotic quest. Yet, despite the NASA ban,
this author, the Viking LR Experimenter, contends there are “stealth life detection
instruments” aboard Curiosity. These are life detection instruments in the sense
that they can free the Viking LR from the pall of ambiguity that has held it prisoner
so long. Curiosity’s stealth instruments are those seeking organic compounds, and
the mission’s high-resolution camera system. Results from any or all of these
devices, coupled with the Viking LR data, can confirm the LR’s life detection claim.
In one possible scenario, Curiosity can, of itself, completely corroborate the finding
of life on Mars. MSL has just successfully landed on Mars. Hopefully, its stealth
confirmations of life will be reported shortly.
 
Introduction
The spacecraft Curiosity has successfully landed on Mars. This is NASA’s largest
planetary effort. However, while the search for life beyond the Earth remains a
prime priority of NASA, Curiosity has no life detection experiment. In the 36 years
since Viking’s landing, July 20, 1976, NASA has not sent another life detection
experiment to Mars; indeed, life detection experiments have been specifically
prohibited. The plan, instead, has been to examine a sample of Martian regolith
brought to Earth, an event probably decades in the future. Despite this long
deferment in its quest, NASA’s Director of the Mars Exploration Program, Doug
McCuistion, recently said2, "Seeking the signs of life still remains the ultimate
goal." That goal may be nearer at hand than NASA indicates. In the author’s
opinion, highly sensitive instruments aboard Curiosity have the capability of
confirming that the Viking Labeled Release experiment did detect living
microorganisms on the surface of Mars.
 
Background
The LR’s claim3 to life is based on responses obtained when a 14C labeled nutrient
solution was applied to samples of Martian soil. Strong evolution of 14C-labeled
gas(es) occurred immediately following injection of the nutrient, and continued in a
pattern, in both amplitude and kinetics, very similar to that obtained from many LR
tests of terrestrial soils. On Mars, as on Earth, confirmation of the biological nature
of a positive result was sought by heating a duplicate sample to a temperature to kill
or impair microorganisms, but not high enough to destroy soil chemicals that might
have reacted with the nutrient compounds. All such control tests on Mars indicated
microorganisms, not chemicals, as the source of the active responses4. Table 1
summarizes the Martian results.
 
TABLE 1
SUMMARY OF VIKING LR MARS RESULTS
 
Positive responses were obtained from soils at both Viking landers
Soil* heated to 160° C for three hours produced nil response
Soil** heated to 51° C for three hours prior to testing produced several small sporadic
peaks (5%-10% of positive response) each of which was further reduced by
approximately 90% prior to the start of the next peak
 
Soil** heated to 46° C for 3 hours produced kinetics similar to positive response, but
70% reduced in amplitude
 
Soils maintained two and three months, respectively, in the VL1 and VL2 soil
distribution boxes, in dark, at approximately 7-10° C, under ambient Mars atmosphere,
pressure and humidity, produced nil responses
 
Soil** protected from UV by overlying rock produced typical active response
Upon second injection of nutrient, approximately 20% of gas already evolved was reabsorbed into the soil, and gradually re-evolved over period of two months, unusual for
most LR tests on Earth, but similar to a test of an Antarctic soil
*Run at VL1 only.
** Run at VL2 only.
 
 
Subsequently, independent approaches5, 6 indicated a circadian rhythm in the LR
data, thereby supporting a biological conclusion. Most recently, an entirely new
approach7, based on complexity analysis of the LR data, produced a result that
strongly favored biology.
 
Over the years since Viking, many theories have attempted to explain away the
biological nature of the LR. No experiment or theory has survived scientific
scrutiny, nor has any experiment been able to duplicate the LR responses and
controls without using living organisms8. Principal among the arguments against
life has been the failure of the Viking organic analysis instrument (GCMS – gas
chromatograph-mass spectrometer) to detect any organic matter in the same soil
samples from which the LR got its life responses. Although researchers9, 10 have
demonstrated deficiencies in the Viking GCMS that impugn its negative result, the
presumed lack of organics remains the only substantial barrier to general
acceptance of the LR claim.
 
In an early attempt to resolve the issue raised by the Viking LR, the author
examined all lander images taken at Viking sites 1 and 2. He reported11 finding
colored patches, ranging from ochre to yellow to greenish, on some of the
foreground rocks. Six channel spectral analyses of the patches found that their
color, hue and intensity closely matched those same parameters of terrestrial lichen
as analyzed by the Viking Lander Imaging System. However, resolution of the
Viking images was too coarse to support any claim to life based on optical spectral
analysis alone.
 
Curiosity’s Stealth Life Detection Instruments
While none of the extensive array of Curiosity’s Mars Surface Laboratory (MSL)12
can detect life, several of its instruments can produce results that could confirm the
Viking LR’s claim to have discovered Martian endogenous life. Coupled with the
Viking LR data, they, thus, may be termed life detection instruments. They are
shown in Table 2.
 
Table 2. Curiosity’s “Stealth” Life Detection Instruments
Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) has the following components that can execute lifepertinent analyses:
 
Oven – this can heat samples to 1,000o C. The vapors and gases produced
can be sent to: Quadrupole Mass Spec (QMS)13. The QMS can identify organic
compounds obtained from the soil. It can also analyze the Martian
atmosphere for organic compounds. It is sensitive to the sub ppb
level. The stated range of molecular weights is 2 – 235 Da. SAM will
likely use techniques14 that process data to identify much heavier
organic molecules, such as peptides and proteins. The QMS can also
determine the isotope ratios of C, H and O and their respective
abundances.
 
Gas Chromatograph (GC)15. The GC can identify specific gases
separated by the QMS.
 
Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS). The TLS can analyze atmospheric
components, and can determine isotopic ratios of atom constituents of CO2
and CH4, which ratios, it has been proposed, can distinguish between
biological and chemical origin of these gases. However, this could not
determine whether any biological indication came from living or dead
organisms.
 
Cameras – a system of cameras is carried aboard.
 
MastCam. Two cameras are mast mounted. They take images in true
color, and have auto focus ranging from 2 m to infinity. They can
take high definition videos. They are equipped with a Hand Lens
System, also imaging in true color, with resolutions up to 14.5 um per
pixel. Focus of the Hand Lens System is from mm distances to
infinity. In addition, there is a Microscopic Probe, capable of color
imaging with a spatial resolution down to three pixels (um).
ChemCam. This is a truly novel and potent innovation, termed
“laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy.” A laser gun is fired at a
selected target. The action vaporizes some of the rock material. The
vapor produced is then remotely and instantly analyzed in its visible,
near-UV and near-IR spectra. The instrument has a 20 cm field of
view, within which it can resolve a target as little as one mm in
diameter at a distance of 10 m.
 
The Case for Organic Matter on Mars.
 
Despite the failure to find any organic compounds in the surface material or
atmosphere of Mars by the only instrument to report on such, the Viking GCMS16,
circumstantial evidence overwhelmingly indicates both the deposition and formation
of organic matter on Mars. Further, the Viking GCMS has been found wanting in
that it did not pyrolyze its soils samples at a sufficiently high enough temperature17,
and that the presence of perchlorates in the soil samples may have obliterated any
trace of organics.18 It seems certain that organic matter was deposited on Mars, as
it was on Earth, by comets, meteors and meteorites, impacting densely in the years
soon after formation of the planets, and, at greatly reduced frequency, continuing to
this day. Also, Mars, again like Earth, must be receiving thousands of tons or
organic matter deposited annually by interplanetary dust particles.
 
In addition to receiving organic matter from space, there is strong evidence that
Mars manufactures its own. This evidence comes from the Viking Pyrolytic Release
(PR) 19 life detection experiment. The PR sought to measure carbon assimilation by
living microorganisms by exposing Martian soil to simulated Martian sunlight in a
chamber containing the 7 mb Martian atmosphere to which its CO 2 and CO was
supplemented with 2.5 mb of 14CO2 and 14 CO in a ratio of 15:1, respectively. In
the analysis phase, a statistically significant level of radioactivity in the soil organics
would be evidence of assimilation. On Mars, the PR yielded tantalizing results that
for a short time were considered presumptive evidence of biology. However, the low
absolute value of the signal, while significant over the radioactive background, and
the still-positive result of the heated (“sterilized”) control supported a non-biological
interpretation.20
 
The paper21 claiming that the LR detected life also showed that the Viking Pyrolytic
Release (PR) experiment had discovered that organic material was actually being
photochemically synthesized on current Mars. This might be thought of as a Miller-
Urey experiment on the endogenous Martian atmosphere. Not only did organic
compounds form, they survived in the soil sample for the five-sol experimental cycle.
 
This survival rebutted the oft-cited claim that the surface of Mars was so oxidative
that it would destroy any life and organic matter, thereby explaining the generally
perceived absence of both. Accumulation of organic matter under Martian ambient
conditions was demonstrated within the PR instrument. This production of
organics on Mars should have been anticipated from the pre-Viking work22, 23 .
The on-going production of organic matter on Mars was again demonstrated in
post-Viking studies24, but, strangely, was not appreciated as the major finding it
was, confirming the indigenous formation and survival of organic matter on Mars.
 
While stating25 that, “The results are startling,” the PR experimenters then
minimized their finding by saying, “If organic Matter is being synthesized on Mars,
it does not accumulate above the sensitivity threshold of the GCMS.” They, thus,
succumbed to the reputed sensitivity of the Viking GCMS, ignoring the survival of
the organic matter formed in the PR, which indicates the organics must continue to
accumulate well beyond that level. In fact, the PR results should have been
immediately recognized as a strong indication that the Viking GCMS was not
working properly.
 
Last year, the author called this matter to the attention of Dr. Jerry S. Hubbard,
Co-Experimenter on the Viking PR. Dr. Hubbard then went into his files and
produced unpublished data from his laboratory work on the production of
photocatalytically synthesized organic compounds from simulated Martian
atmosphere under simulated sunlight. Formic acid, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and
glycolic acid comprised about 85% of the 14C-products, with the remainder being
unidentified compounds. Hubbard’s previously unpublished data presented in
 
Table 3 show the yields of photocatalytic synthesis products on three model Mars
soils irradiated with simulated Mars sunlight. Low levels of abiotic synthesis were
also detected in post-Viking studies26 with the standard PR removal of UV
frequencies below 320 nm. Hubbard27 calculated the carbon assimilated in three
light, dry incubations of the Martian Chryse soils28. The Viking data correspond to
10.5, 2.9 and 3.6 pmoles of organic carbon, if produced from 14CO, or 37.9, 10.7 and
12.3 pmoles, if produced from 14CO2.
 
In the Viking PR instrument, an optical filter was installed which removed
wavelengths = 320 nm from the light source The filtered light was much less
effective in driving the abiotic synthesis of simple organics, thus reducing the
possibility of a false positive result. Accordingly, the light in the PR instrument on
Mars was not a true simulation of sunlight there. The new data in Table 3 show
that, when the light used simulates the Martian flux, some 3 orders of magnitude
more organic matter is formed over the amount formed in the UV-protected PR on
Mars.
 
However, it is important to point out that the organic compounds produced in the
PR were of relatively small molecular size. Hence, they provide no direct evidence
for biology-sized molecules on Mars. Nonetheless, these repetitive and consistent
results raise a strong challenge to the negative findings of the Viking GCMS. Added
to the previously stated sources of organic matter on Mars, they leave little doubt
that MSL will find organic compounds in the soil of Mars.
 
TABLE 3
Photocatalytic Synthesis of Organics on Model Mars Soils using
Simulated Mars Sunlight
Samplea Irradiationb nmoles of carbon recovered
Gas phasec Soil extractd
_____________________ ___________
14CO 14 CO2 14C-organics
Volcanic ash shale 7 day 13.5 17.3 117.0
Mars analog soil 7 day 93.9 32.0 10.8
Montmorillonite 3 day 106.9 31.9 13.4
a Samples(300 mg) in 5.5 ml quartz tubes were predried at 145oC for 16 hr and then attached to a vacuum/gas mixing apparatus while still hot. Sample tubes were filled with CO2 and evacuated five times.
bThe evacuated tubes were filled with 320 torr of 12 CO2 and 0.5 torr of 14 CO(145 nmoles) and then mounted horizontally on a wheel which rotated at 2 rpm. With the light path perpendicular to the axis of rotation samples were irradiated with a high pressure xenon source filtered through 2.5 mm
Vycor glass, which removed UV < 220 nm, with the sample incident light approximating the flux on the Martian surface. The maximum and average intensities reaching the samples were 30 and 17 mW·cm-2.
c Gases were separated and their radioactivity quantified29.
D Samples were extracted in boiling water and radioactivity quantified30.
Credit: Dr. Jerry S. Hubbard.
 
The most rapid and efficient conversion occurred on the volcanic ash shale where
81% of the 145 nmoles of available carbon in CO and 87% of the carbon in the
consumed CO were recovered in the organic products in the soil. With the Mars
analog soil the conversion values relative to the available CO and the consumed
CO were 7.4% and 21%, respectively. For montmorillonite after the 3-day
irradiation, 35% of the carbon in the depleted CO was recovered in the soil
organics. Hubbard states, “Any one of the three diverse model soils would be an
effective substratum for the abiotic synthesis on Mars.” Beyond this Mars-specific
evidence, a very recent paper31 makes the case for the formation of complex organic
matter throughout all planetary systems, including our solar system. Thus, the
stage seems set for Curiosity to find even complex organics on Mars near or on the
surface. Another recent paper32 estimates that complex organic molecules as little
as only several cm beneath the surface of Mars can survive cosmic radiation, thus
being readily available for detection by Curiosity’s MSL.
 
Biological Relevance of SAM’s Findings. SAM’s QMS, GC and TLS have the
ability to detect organic compounds that would be present in soils even sparsely
populated with microorganisms, well within the reach of the LR’s sensitivity (some
10 cells). Moreover, with the inductive analytical technique cited above for the
QMS, any gases detected could be established as having come from specific peptides,
proteins or other large molecules of biological relevance. The GC and the TLS can
also make such determinations. Furthermore, the isotopic analysis and ratios of the
isotopes of carbon and hydrogen in any methane found can be indicative of a
chemical or biological origin of the methane. Add the extraordinary power of the
ChemCam, with its broad spectroscopic capabilities, and it is apparent that the
MLS can finally settle the long-standing issue of whether or not there are organics
on Mars. It can also establish whether there are organic compounds present that
are commonly associated with biological activity on Earth. In themselves, as NASA
has said, such findings would not be proof of life.
 
Complex organic molecules have often been stated to be “biomarkers,” meaning
that their detection would be conclusive evidence for life. However, it is likely that,
were even DNA found, such “evidence” would be quickly relegated to the dust bin of
doubt by Occam’s razor.33 All such evidence will be deemed as more likely to
have occurred through abiotic happenstance rather than having required the
development of a living entity to produce it.
 
The unintended and highly significant outcome of Curiosity’s search would be its
confirmation of complex organic compounds on Mars. This finding would remove
the last, lingering support from the dwindling, but remaining consensus that the
Viking LR results are not proof of life. The LR results are not a snapshot, as are
the “biomarkers,” but are long-term, continuous evidence of metabolism, as
confirmed by metabolism-killing controls. Objectors would be driven to the
sometimes proposed concept that chemistry on Mars differs from chemistry on
Earth, that some mysterious reaction, not yet achievable in laboratories, is
mimicking life. This would be a difficult case to make before competent chemists
and physicists.
 
Visual Evidence for Life.
The radiometric (“true color”) image of the Viking 1 landing site, Figure 1, shows
many interesting features and colors.
Fig. 1. Radiometric (“true color”) Viking Image 12A006/001, Viking 1 Lander
Site.
Examination of all Viking Lander images showed not only colored (ochre to yellowto-
yellow-green to green) patches on some of the foreground rocks, but seasonal
changes in the colors and patterns of the same objects when viewed under the same
conditions, as seen, for example, in Figures 2a and 2b.
Fig. 2a. Fig 2b.
Fig. 2a. Radiometric color picture of Viking lander site 1, taken sol 1. Viking
Picture 12A006/001; Fig. 2b. Same view (but different time of day) taken sol 302
showing changes on rocks and ground surface. Viking Picture 12Dl25/302.
Radiometric images (true color) were taken at the same time and sun angle each
Mars year for three consecutive years. Even though a soil sample had been
retrieved from the area between years one and two, color and pattern changes
independent of detritus from the sampling are seen over the years. See Figure
3.
FIG. 3. Radiometric Images over a three-year span at Viking site 1.
Lichen are called “the pioneers of vegetation” because they are frequently the
first organisms that appear on newly habitable rocks or soil, as exemplified by
their early appearance on volcanically-formed island of Surtsey. Capable of
surviving under severe conditions by undergoing cryptobiosis, they might survive
within debris ejected from Earth to Mars by meteoric impact. Since Viking,
lichen have been reported34 to survive under simulated Martian conditions and
the conditions of outer space. From time to time, lichen have been mentioned as
likely candidates for life on Mars. In this context, Dr. Mike Meyer, Director of
NASA’s Planetary Programs, exhibited35 the lichen-coated rock seen in Figure
3a. Figure 3b. shows “Delta Rock” imaged at Viking lander site 1.
Fig. 4a. Lichen-Coated Rock Fig. 4b. “Delta Rock” on Mars
As stated above, Viking’s imaging system was too coarse in its resolution to support
its six-channel spectral analysis that showed a striking coincidence between the
greenish spots on Martian rocks and green lichen on terrestrial rocks when viewed
under the JPL Viking Imaging System. The extraordinary capabilities of the
Curiosity camera systems offer an opportunity to resolve whether any such patches
found by the MSL are biological or not. Biological features, such as foliose or
crustose patterns, hyphae, cortex, medulla and cephalodia of lichen might readily be
identified by the hi res camera and the hand lens. Alien life form on Mars might
well exhibit features morphologically attributable to biology.
Visual and Chemical Proof of Life
As mentioned above, Curiosity can, in itself, completely corroborate the presence of
life on Mars. Should colored patches be seen on rocks, after their close visual
inspection, these patches can be targeted by the ChemCam. The spectroscopic
information obtained might support the visible evidence for life, making a “bulletproof,”
or Occam-resistant case for life.
The author conveyed these concepts of the camera “stealth” life detection
experiments to Dr. Michael Malin, developer and Principal Investigator of the
Curiosity camera systems, together with the paper cited above that first indicated
colored patches on Martian rocks. Dr. Malin said36 he would closely examine any
such spots at high resolution, but said mission operations prevented him from
returning to the same locations to look for temporal changes as I had further
suggested. The author believes, however, that, should SAM and ChemCam show
positive evidence for life, the Curiosity Mission will direct the MSL rover back to
the same spot at a date sufficient to show changes in color or pattern resulting from
growth or decay. This could constitute the greatest feat imaginable for the Curiosity
mission.
References:
1 http://msl-scicorner.jpl.nasa.gov, science goals, July 15, 2011.
2 Quoted in Discovery News, By Irene Klotz, Apr 16, 2012 07:51 AM ET.
3 Levin, G. V., "The Viking Labeled Release Experiment and Life on Mars," in Instruments,
Methods, and Missions for the Investigation of Extraterrestrial Microorganisms, Proc. SPIE, 3111,
146-161, 1997.
4 Levin, G. V., “Modern Myths of Mars,” Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology,
6309, 6309OC-1 -15, SPIE Proc., 2006.
5 Miller, J.D, P.A. Straat, and G.V. Levin, “Periodic Analysis of the Viking Lander Labeled Release
Experiment,” Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology, SPIE Proceedings, 4495, 96-
107, July 2001.
6 Miller, J. D., et al., “A Circadian Biosignature in the Labeled Release Data from Mars?,”
Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology, SPIE Proceedings, 5906, OC1-10, 2005.
7 Bianciardi, G., et al., “Complexity Analysis of the Viking Labeled Release Experiments,” Int'l J.
of Aeronautical & Space Sci., 13(1), 14-26, 2012.
8 Levin, G. V., “Chapter 9 Revisited,” The Microbes of Mars, Addendum to Mars: the Living
Planet, Barry DiGregorio, Kindle eBook, 2011.
9 Benner, S. et al., “The missing organic molecules on Mars,” PNAS, 97, 6, 2435-2430, 2000.
10 Navarro-González et al., “The limitations on organic detection in Mars-like soils by thermal
volatilization–gas chromatography–MS and their implications for the Viking
results,” PNAS, 103, 16089-16094, 2006.
11 Levin, G. V., P. A. Straat and W. D. Benton, “Color and Feature Changes at Mars Viking
LanderSite,” J. Theoret. Biol., 75, 381-390, 1978.
12 Op. Cit. 1.
13 Mahaffy1, P. R., et al., “Calibration of the Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer of the Sample
Analysis at Mars Instrument Suite,” Goddard Space Flight Center, Code 699, Greenbelt, MD
20771 42nd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, 2011.
14 Trauger, S. A., W. Webb and G. Siuzdak, “Peptide and Protein Analysis with Mass
Spectrometry,” Spectroscopy, IOS Press, 16, 15-28, 2002.
15 Op. Cit. 12.
16 Biemann, K., et al., "The Search for Organic Substances and Inorganic Volatile Compounds in
the Surface of Mars," J. Geophys. Res., 82, 4641, 1977.
17 Op. Cit. 9.
18Op. Cit 10.
19 Horowitz, N H., Hobby, G. L., Hubbard, J. S., “Viking on Mars: the carbon
assimilation experiments,” J. Geophys. Res. 82, 4659-4662, 1977.
20 Ibid.
21 Op.Cit. 3.
22Hubbard, J. S., J. P. Hardy, N. H. Horowitz, “Photocatalytic synthesis of organic
compounds from CO and H2O in a simulated Martian atmosphere,” Proc. Nat.
Acad. Sci.. 68, 574-578, 1971.
23 Hubbard, J. S., et al., “Photocatalytic synthesis of organic compounds from CO and water:
involvement of surfaces in the formation of products,” J. Mol. Evol. 14, 149-166, 1973.
24 Hubbard, J. S., “Laboratory simulations of the pyrolytic release experiment: an interim report.”
J. Mol. Evol. 14, 211-221, 1979.
25 Op. Cit 19.
26 Op Cit. 24
27 Ibid.
28 Op. Cit. 19.
29 Op. Cit. 22.
30 Ibid.
31 Ciesla, F. J., and Scott A. Sanford, “Organic Synthesis via Irradiation and Warming of Ice
Grains in the Solar Nebula,” Science, 452- 454, 2012.
32 Pavlov, A. A., et al., “Degradation of the Organic Molecules in the Shallow Subsurface of Mars
due to Irradiation by Cosmic Rays,”Geophys. Res. Lett., 39, 13, doi:10.1029/2012GL052166,
2012.
33 Levin, G. V., “Can Chirality Give Proof of Extinct or Extant Life?”, Astrobiology Science
Conference, AZ State University, April 26–29, 2010.
34 De la Torre, R., et al., “Survival of lichens and bacteria exposed to outer space
conditions. Results of the Lithopanspermia experiments,” doi:10.1016/j, 03.010, Icarus,
2010.
35 Astrobiology Magazine, Retrospections, Mars, posted Sept. 18, 2006.
36 Dr. Michael Malin, developer and Principal Investigator, Curiosity camera systems, Malin
Systems, Inc., private communication, Nov. 27, Nov. 28, 2011.
Acknowledgement:
The author would like to acknowledge the help of Dr. Jerry S. Hubbard, Co-Experimenter of the
Pyrolytic Release (PR) life detection experiment, for discussing the import of the PR with respect
to organic matter currently forming on Mars, in supplying unpublished PR data, and in reviewing this paper. Questions about Hubbard's methodology or findings can be addressed by contacting him directly, < jhubbard48@cfl.rr.com>.
####################################################################################
STEALTH LIFE DETECTION INSTRUMENTS ABOARD CURIOSITY
Gilbert V. Levin
Adjunct Professor, Beyond Center, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Arizona
State University
Honorary Professor, Centre for Astrobiology, University of Buckingham (UK)
 
ABSTRACT
NASA has often stated (e.g. MSL Science Corner1) that it’s Mars Science
Laboratory (MSL), “Curiosity,” Mission to Mars carries no life detection
experiments. This is in keeping with NASA’s 36-year explicit ban on such, imposed
immediately after the 1976 Viking Mission to Mars. The space agency attributes the
ban to the “ambiguity” of that Mission’s Labeled Release (LR) life detection
experiment, fearing an adverse effect on the space program should a similar
“inconclusive” result come from a new robotic quest. Yet, despite the NASA ban,
this author, the Viking LR Experimenter, contends there are “stealth life detection
instruments” aboard Curiosity. These are life detection instruments in the sense
that they can free the Viking LR from the pall of ambiguity that has held it prisoner
so long. Curiosity’s stealth instruments are those seeking organic compounds, and
the mission’s high-resolution camera system. Results from any or all of these
devices, coupled with the Viking LR data, can confirm the LR’s life detection claim.
In one possible scenario, Curiosity can, of itself, completely corroborate the finding
of life on Mars. MSL has just successfully landed on Mars. Hopefully, its stealth
confirmations of life will be reported shortly.
 
Introduction
The spacecraft Curiosity has successfully landed on Mars. This is NASA’s largest
planetary effort. However, while the search for life beyond the Earth remains a
prime priority of NASA, Curiosity has no life detection experiment. In the 36 years
since Viking’s landing, July 20, 1976, NASA has not sent another life detection
experiment to Mars; indeed, life detection experiments have been specifically
prohibited. The plan, instead, has been to examine a sample of Martian regolith
brought to Earth, an event probably decades in the future. Despite this long
deferment in its quest, NASA’s Director of the Mars Exploration Program, Doug
McCuistion, recently said2, "Seeking the signs of life still remains the ultimate
goal." That goal may be nearer at hand than NASA indicates. In the author’s
opinion, highly sensitive instruments aboard Curiosity have the capability of
confirming that the Viking Labeled Release experiment did detect living
microorganisms on the surface of Mars.
 
Background
The LR’s claim3 to life is based on responses obtained when a 14C labeled nutrient
solution was applied to samples of Martian soil. Strong evolution of 14C-labeled
gas(es) occurred immediately following injection of the nutrient, and continued in a
pattern, in both amplitude and kinetics, very similar to that obtained from many LR
tests of terrestrial soils. On Mars, as on Earth, confirmation of the biological nature
of a positive result was sought by heating a duplicate sample to a temperature to kill
or impair microorganisms, but not high enough to destroy soil chemicals that might
have reacted with the nutrient compounds. All such control tests on Mars indicated
microorganisms, not chemicals, as the source of the active responses4. Table 1
summarizes the Martian results.
 
TABLE 1
SUMMARY OF VIKING LR MARS RESULTS
 
Positive responses were obtained from soils at both Viking landers
Soil* heated to 160° C for three hours produced nil response
Soil** heated to 51° C for three hours prior to testing produced several small sporadic
peaks (5%-10% of positive response) each of which was further reduced by
approximately 90% prior to the start of the next peak
 
Soil** heated to 46° C for 3 hours produced kinetics similar to positive response, but
70% reduced in amplitude
 
Soils maintained two and three months, respectively, in the VL1 and VL2 soil
distribution boxes, in dark, at approximately 7-10° C, under ambient Mars atmosphere,
pressure and humidity, produced nil responses
 
Soil** protected from UV by overlying rock produced typical active response
Upon second injection of nutrient, approximately 20% of gas already evolved was reabsorbed into the soil, and gradually re-evolved over period of two months, unusual for
most LR tests on Earth, but similar to a test of an Antarctic soil
*Run at VL1 only.
** Run at VL2 only.
 
 
Subsequently, independent approaches5, 6 indicated a circadian rhythm in the LR
data, thereby supporting a biological conclusion. Most recently, an entirely new
approach7, based on complexity analysis of the LR data, produced a result that
strongly favored biology.
 
Over the years since Viking, many theories have attempted to explain away the
biological nature of the LR. No experiment or theory has survived scientific
scrutiny, nor has any experiment been able to duplicate the LR responses and
controls without using living organisms8. Principal among the arguments against
life has been the failure of the Viking organic analysis instrument (GCMS – gas
chromatograph-mass spectrometer) to detect any organic matter in the same soil
samples from which the LR got its life responses. Although researchers9, 10 have
demonstrated deficiencies in the Viking GCMS that impugn its negative result, the
presumed lack of organics remains the only substantial barrier to general
acceptance of the LR claim.
 
In an early attempt to resolve the issue raised by the Viking LR, the author
examined all lander images taken at Viking sites 1 and 2. He reported11 finding
colored patches, ranging from ochre to yellow to greenish, on some of the
foreground rocks. Six channel spectral analyses of the patches found that their
color, hue and intensity closely matched those same parameters of terrestrial lichen
as analyzed by the Viking Lander Imaging System. However, resolution of the
Viking images was too coarse to support any claim to life based on optical spectral
analysis alone.
 
Curiosity’s Stealth Life Detection Instruments
While none of the extensive array of Curiosity’s Mars Surface Laboratory (MSL)12
can detect life, several of its instruments can produce results that could confirm the
Viking LR’s claim to have discovered Martian endogenous life. Coupled with the
Viking LR data, they, thus, may be termed life detection instruments. They are
shown in Table 2.
 
Table 2. Curiosity’s “Stealth” Life Detection Instruments
Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) has the following components that can execute lifepertinent analyses:
 
Oven – this can heat samples to 1,000o C. The vapors and gases produced
can be sent to: Quadrupole Mass Spec (QMS)13. The QMS can identify organic
compounds obtained from the soil. It can also analyze the Martian
atmosphere for organic compounds. It is sensitive to the sub ppb
level. The stated range of molecular weights is 2 – 235 Da. SAM will
likely use techniques14 that process data to identify much heavier
organic molecules, such as peptides and proteins. The QMS can also
determine the isotope ratios of C, H and O and their respective
abundances.
 
Gas Chromatograph (GC)15. The GC can identify specific gases
separated by the QMS.
 
Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS). The TLS can analyze atmospheric
components, and can determine isotopic ratios of atom constituents of CO2
and CH4, which ratios, it has been proposed, can distinguish between
biological and chemical origin of these gases. However, this could not
determine whether any biological indication came from living or dead
organisms.
 
Cameras – a system of cameras is carried aboard.
 
MastCam. Two cameras are mast mounted. They take images in true
color, and have auto focus ranging from 2 m to infinity. They can
take high definition videos. They are equipped with a Hand Lens
System, also imaging in true color, with resolutions up to 14.5 um per
pixel. Focus of the Hand Lens System is from mm distances to
infinity. In addition, there is a Microscopic Probe, capable of color
imaging with a spatial resolution down to three pixels (um).
ChemCam. This is a truly novel and potent innovation, termed
“laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy.” A laser gun is fired at a
selected target. The action vaporizes some of the rock material. The
vapor produced is then remotely and instantly analyzed in its visible,
near-UV and near-IR spectra. The instrument has a 20 cm field of
view, within which it can resolve a target as little as one mm in
diameter at a distance of 10 m.
 
The Case for Organic Matter on Mars.
 
Despite the failure to find any organic compounds in the surface material or
atmosphere of Mars by the only instrument to report on such, the Viking GCMS16,
circumstantial evidence overwhelmingly indicates both the deposition and formation
of organic matter on Mars. Further, the Viking GCMS has been found wanting in
that it did not pyrolyze its soils samples at a sufficiently high enough temperature17,
and that the presence of perchlorates in the soil samples may have obliterated any
trace of organics.18 It seems certain that organic matter was deposited on Mars, as
it was on Earth, by comets, meteors and meteorites, impacting densely in the years
soon after formation of the planets, and, at greatly reduced frequency, continuing to
this day. Also, Mars, again like Earth, must be receiving thousands of tons or
organic matter deposited annually by interplanetary dust particles.
 
In addition to receiving organic matter from space, there is strong evidence that
Mars manufactures its own. This evidence comes from the Viking Pyrolytic Release
(PR) 19 life detection experiment. The PR sought to measure carbon assimilation by
living microorganisms by exposing Martian soil to simulated Martian sunlight in a
chamber containing the 7 mb Martian atmosphere to which its CO 2 and CO was
supplemented with 2.5 mb of 14CO2 and 14 CO in a ratio of 15:1, respectively. In
the analysis phase, a statistically significant level of radioactivity in the soil organics
would be evidence of assimilation. On Mars, the PR yielded tantalizing results that
for a short time were considered presumptive evidence of biology. However, the low
absolute value of the signal, while significant over the radioactive background, and
the still-positive result of the heated (“sterilized”) control supported a non-biological
interpretation.20
 
The paper21 claiming that the LR detected life also showed that the Viking Pyrolytic
Release (PR) experiment had discovered that organic material was actually being
photochemically synthesized on current Mars. This might be thought of as a Miller-
Urey experiment on the endogenous Martian atmosphere. Not only did organic
compounds form, they survived in the soil sample for the five-sol experimental cycle.
 
This survival rebutted the oft-cited claim that the surface of Mars was so oxidative
that it would destroy any life and organic matter, thereby explaining the generally
perceived absence of both. Accumulation of organic matter under Martian ambient
conditions was demonstrated within the PR instrument. This production of
organics on Mars should have been anticipated from the pre-Viking work22, 23 .
The on-going production of organic matter on Mars was again demonstrated in
post-Viking studies24, but, strangely, was not appreciated as the major finding it
was, confirming the indigenous formation and survival of organic matter on Mars.
 
While stating25 that, “The results are startling,” the PR experimenters then
minimized their finding by saying, “If organic Matter is being synthesized on Mars,
it does not accumulate above the sensitivity threshold of the GCMS.” They, thus,
succumbed to the reputed sensitivity of the Viking GCMS, ignoring the survival of
the organic matter formed in the PR, which indicates the organics must continue to
accumulate well beyond that level. In fact, the PR results should have been
immediately recognized as a strong indication that the Viking GCMS was not
working properly.
 
Last year, the author called this matter to the attention of Dr. Jerry S. Hubbard,
Co-Experimenter on the Viking PR. Dr. Hubbard then went into his files and
produced unpublished data from his laboratory work on the production of
photocatalytically synthesized organic compounds from simulated Martian
atmosphere under simulated sunlight. Formic acid, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and
glycolic acid comprised about 85% of the 14C-products, with the remainder being
unidentified compounds. Hubbard’s previously unpublished data presented in
 
Table 3 show the yields of photocatalytic synthesis products on three model Mars
soils irradiated with simulated Mars sunlight. Low levels of abiotic synthesis were
also detected in post-Viking studies26 with the standard PR removal of UV
frequencies below 320 nm. Hubbard27 calculated the carbon assimilated in three
light, dry incubations of the Martian Chryse soils28. The Viking data correspond to
10.5, 2.9 and 3.6 pmoles of organic carbon, if produced from 14CO, or 37.9, 10.7 and
12.3 pmoles, if produced from 14CO2.
 
In the Viking PR instrument, an optical filter was installed which removed
wavelengths = 320 nm from the light source The filtered light was much less
effective in driving the abiotic synthesis of simple organics, thus reducing the
possibility of a false positive result. Accordingly, the light in the PR instrument on
Mars was not a true simulation of sunlight there. The new data in Table 3 show
that, when the light used simulates the Martian flux, some 3 orders of magnitude
more organic matter is formed over the amount formed in the UV-protected PR on
Mars.
 
However, it is important to point out that the organic compounds produced in the
PR were of relatively small molecular size. Hence, they provide no direct evidence
for biology-sized molecules on Mars. Nonetheless, these repetitive and consistent
results raise a strong challenge to the negative findings of the Viking GCMS. Added
to the previously stated sources of organic matter on Mars, they leave little doubt
that MSL will find organic compounds in the soil of Mars.
 
TABLE 3
Photocatalytic Synthesis of Organics on Model Mars Soils using
Simulated Mars Sunlight
Samplea Irradiationb nmoles of carbon recovered
Gas phasec Soil extractd
_____________________ ___________
14CO 14 CO2 14C-organics
Volcanic ash shale 7 day 13.5 17.3 117.0
Mars analog soil 7 day 93.9 32.0 10.8
Montmorillonite 3 day 106.9 31.9 13.4
a Samples(300 mg) in 5.5 ml quartz tubes were predried at 145oC for 16 hr and then attached to a vacuum/gas mixing apparatus while still hot. Sample tubes were filled with CO2 and evacuated five times.
bThe evacuated tubes were filled with 320 torr of 12 CO2 and 0.5 torr of 14 CO(145 nmoles) and then mounted horizontally on a wheel which rotated at 2 rpm. With the light path perpendicular to the axis of rotation samples were irradiated with a high pressure xenon source filtered through 2.5 mm
Vycor glass, which removed UV < 220 nm, with the sample incident light approximating the flux on the Martian surface. The maximum and average intensities reaching the samples were 30 and 17 mW·cm-2.
c Gases were separated and their radioactivity quantified29.
D Samples were extracted in boiling water and radioactivity quantified30.
Credit: Dr. Jerry S. Hubbard.
 
The most rapid and efficient conversion occurred on the volcanic ash shale where
81% of the 145 nmoles of available carbon in CO and 87% of the carbon in the
consumed CO were recovered in the organic products in the soil. With the Mars
analog soil the conversion values relative to the available CO and the consumed
CO were 7.4% and 21%, respectively. For montmorillonite after the 3-day
irradiation, 35% of the carbon in the depleted CO was recovered in the soil
organics. Hubbard states, “Any one of the three diverse model soils would be an
effective substratum for the abiotic synthesis on Mars.” Beyond this Mars-specific
evidence, a very recent paper31 makes the case for the formation of complex organic
matter throughout all planetary systems, including our solar system. Thus, the
stage seems set for Curiosity to find even complex organics on Mars near or on the
surface. Another recent paper32 estimates that complex organic molecules as little
as only several cm beneath the surface of Mars can survive cosmic radiation, thus
being readily available for detection by Curiosity’s MSL.
 
Biological Relevance of SAM’s Findings. SAM’s QMS, GC and TLS have the
ability to detect organic compounds that would be present in soils even sparsely
populated with microorganisms, well within the reach of the LR’s sensitivity (some
10 cells). Moreover, with the inductive analytical technique cited above for the
QMS, any gases detected could be established as having come from specific peptides,
proteins or other large molecules of biological relevance. The GC and the TLS can
also make such determinations. Furthermore, the isotopic analysis and ratios of the
isotopes of carbon and hydrogen in any methane found can be indicative of a
chemical or biological origin of the methane. Add the extraordinary power of the
ChemCam, with its broad spectroscopic capabilities, and it is apparent that the
MLS can finally settle the long-standing issue of whether or not there are organics
on Mars. It can also establish whether there are organic compounds present that
are commonly associated with biological activity on Earth. In themselves, as NASA
has said, such findings would not be proof of life.
 
Complex organic molecules have often been stated to be “biomarkers,” meaning
that their detection would be conclusive evidence for life. However, it is likely that,
were even DNA found, such “evidence” would be quickly relegated to the dust bin of
doubt by Occam’s razor.33 All such evidence will be deemed as more likely to
have occurred through abiotic happenstance rather than having required the
development of a living entity to produce it.
 
The unintended and highly significant outcome of Curiosity’s search would be its
confirmation of complex organic compounds on Mars. This finding would remove
the last, lingering support from the dwindling, but remaining consensus that the
Viking LR results are not proof of life. The LR results are not a snapshot, as are
the “biomarkers,” but are long-term, continuous evidence of metabolism, as
confirmed by metabolism-killing controls. Objectors would be driven to the
sometimes proposed concept that chemistry on Mars differs from chemistry on
Earth, that some mysterious reaction, not yet achievable in laboratories, is
mimicking life. This would be a difficult case to make before competent chemists
and physicists.
 
Visual Evidence for Life.
The radiometric (“true color”) image of the Viking 1 landing site, Figure 1, shows
many interesting features and colors.
Fig. 1. Radiometric (“true color”) Viking Image 12A006/001, Viking 1 Lander
Site.
Examination of all Viking Lander images showed not only colored (ochre to yellowto-
yellow-green to green) patches on some of the foreground rocks, but seasonal
changes in the colors and patterns of the same objects when viewed under the same
conditions, as seen, for example, in Figures 2a and 2b.
Fig. 2a. Fig 2b.
Fig. 2a. Radiometric color picture of Viking lander site 1, taken sol 1. Viking
Picture 12A006/001; Fig. 2b. Same view (but different time of day) taken sol 302
showing changes on rocks and ground surface. Viking Picture 12Dl25/302.
Radiometric images (true color) were taken at the same time and sun angle each
Mars year for three consecutive years. Even though a soil sample had been
retrieved from the area between years one and two, color and pattern changes
independent of detritus from the sampling are seen over the years. See Figure
3.
FIG. 3. Radiometric Images over a three-year span at Viking site 1.
Lichen are called “the pioneers of vegetation” because they are frequently the
first organisms that appear on newly habitable rocks or soil, as exemplified by
their early appearance on volcanically-formed island of Surtsey. Capable of
surviving under severe conditions by undergoing cryptobiosis, they might survive
within debris ejected from Earth to Mars by meteoric impact. Since Viking,
lichen have been reported34 to survive under simulated Martian conditions and
the conditions of outer space. From time to time, lichen have been mentioned as
likely candidates for life on Mars. In this context, Dr. Mike Meyer, Director of
NASA’s Planetary Programs, exhibited35 the lichen-coated rock seen in Figure
3a. Figure 3b. shows “Delta Rock” imaged at Viking lander site 1.
Fig. 4a. Lichen-Coated Rock Fig. 4b. “Delta Rock” on Mars
As stated above, Viking’s imaging system was too coarse in its resolution to support
its six-channel spectral analysis that showed a striking coincidence between the
greenish spots on Martian rocks and green lichen on terrestrial rocks when viewed
under the JPL Viking Imaging System. The extraordinary capabilities of the
Curiosity camera systems offer an opportunity to resolve whether any such patches
found by the MSL are biological or not. Biological features, such as foliose or
crustose patterns, hyphae, cortex, medulla and cephalodia of lichen might readily be
identified by the hi res camera and the hand lens. Alien life form on Mars might
well exhibit features morphologically attributable to biology.
Visual and Chemical Proof of Life
As mentioned above, Curiosity can, in itself, completely corroborate the presence of
life on Mars. Should colored patches be seen on rocks, after their close visual
inspection, these patches can be targeted by the ChemCam. The spectroscopic
information obtained might support the visible evidence for life, making a “bulletproof,”
or Occam-resistant case for life.
The author conveyed these concepts of the camera “stealth” life detection
experiments to Dr. Michael Malin, developer and Principal Investigator of the
Curiosity camera systems, together with the paper cited above that first indicated
colored patches on Martian rocks. Dr. Malin said36 he would closely examine any
such spots at high resolution, but said mission operations prevented him from
returning to the same locations to look for temporal changes as I had further
suggested. The author believes, however, that, should SAM and ChemCam show
positive evidence for life, the Curiosity Mission will direct the MSL rover back to
the same spot at a date sufficient to show changes in color or pattern resulting from
growth or decay. This could constitute the greatest feat imaginable for the Curiosity
mission.
References:
1 http://msl-scicorner.jpl.nasa.gov, science goals, July 15, 2011.
2 Quoted in Discovery News, By Irene Klotz, Apr 16, 2012 07:51 AM ET.
3 Levin, G. V., "The Viking Labeled Release Experiment and Life on Mars," in Instruments,
Methods, and Missions for the Investigation of Extraterrestrial Microorganisms, Proc. SPIE, 3111,
146-161, 1997.
4 Levin, G. V., “Modern Myths of Mars,” Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology,
6309, 6309OC-1 -15, SPIE Proc., 2006.
5 Miller, J.D, P.A. Straat, and G.V. Levin, “Periodic Analysis of the Viking Lander Labeled Release
Experiment,” Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology, SPIE Proceedings, 4495, 96-
107, July 2001.
6 Miller, J. D., et al., “A Circadian Biosignature in the Labeled Release Data from Mars?,”
Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology, SPIE Proceedings, 5906, OC1-10, 2005.
7 Bianciardi, G., et al., “Complexity Analysis of the Viking Labeled Release Experiments,” Int'l J.
of Aeronautical & Space Sci., 13(1), 14-26, 2012.
8 Levin, G. V., “Chapter 9 Revisited,” The Microbes of Mars, Addendum to Mars: the Living
Planet, Barry DiGregorio, Kindle eBook, 2011.
9 Benner, S. et al., “The missing organic molecules on Mars,” PNAS, 97, 6, 2435-2430, 2000.
10 Navarro-González et al., “The limitations on organic detection in Mars-like soils by thermal
volatilization–gas chromatography–MS and their implications for the Viking
results,” PNAS, 103, 16089-16094, 2006.
11 Levin, G. V., P. A. Straat and W. D. Benton, “Color and Feature Changes at Mars Viking
LanderSite,” J. Theoret. Biol., 75, 381-390, 1978.
12 Op. Cit. 1.
13 Mahaffy1, P. R., et al., “Calibration of the Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer of the Sample
Analysis at Mars Instrument Suite,” Goddard Space Flight Center, Code 699, Greenbelt, MD
20771 42nd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, 2011.
14 Trauger, S. A., W. Webb and G. Siuzdak, “Peptide and Protein Analysis with Mass
Spectrometry,” Spectroscopy, IOS Press, 16, 15-28, 2002.
15 Op. Cit. 12.
16 Biemann, K., et al., "The Search for Organic Substances and Inorganic Volatile Compounds in
the Surface of Mars," J. Geophys. Res., 82, 4641, 1977.
17 Op. Cit. 9.
18Op. Cit 10.
19 Horowitz, N H., Hobby, G. L., Hubbard, J. S., “Viking on Mars: the carbon
assimilation experiments,” J. Geophys. Res. 82, 4659-4662, 1977.
20 Ibid.
21 Op.Cit. 3.
22Hubbard, J. S., J. P. Hardy, N. H. Horowitz, “Photocatalytic synthesis of organic
compounds from CO and H2O in a simulated Martian atmosphere,” Proc. Nat.
Acad. Sci.. 68, 574-578, 1971.
23 Hubbard, J. S., et al., “Photocatalytic synthesis of organic compounds from CO and water:
involvement of surfaces in the formation of products,” J. Mol. Evol. 14, 149-166, 1973.
24 Hubbard, J. S., “Laboratory simulations of the pyrolytic release experiment: an interim report.”
J. Mol. Evol. 14, 211-221, 1979.
25 Op. Cit 19.
26 Op Cit. 24
27 Ibid.
28 Op. Cit. 19.
29 Op. Cit. 22.
30 Ibid.
31 Ciesla, F. J., and Scott A. Sanford, “Organic Synthesis via Irradiation and Warming of Ice
Grains in the Solar Nebula,” Science, 452- 454, 2012.
32 Pavlov, A. A., et al., “Degradation of the Organic Molecules in the Shallow Subsurface of Mars
due to Irradiation by Cosmic Rays,”Geophys. Res. Lett., 39, 13, doi:10.1029/2012GL052166,
2012.
33 Levin, G. V., “Can Chirality Give Proof of Extinct or Extant Life?”, Astrobiology Science
Conference, AZ State University, April 26–29, 2010.
34 De la Torre, R., et al., “Survival of lichens and bacteria exposed to outer space
conditions. Results of the Lithopanspermia experiments,” doi:10.1016/j, 03.010, Icarus,
2010.
35 Astrobiology Magazine, Retrospections, Mars, posted Sept. 18, 2006.
36 Dr. Michael Malin, developer and Principal Investigator, Curiosity camera systems, Malin
Systems, Inc., private communication, Nov. 27, Nov. 28, 2011.
Acknowledgement:
The author would like to acknowledge the help of Dr. Jerry S. Hubbard, Co-Experimenter of the
Pyrolytic Release (PR) life detection experiment, for discussing the import of the PR with respect
to organic matter currently forming on Mars, in supplying unpublished PR data, and in reviewing this paper. Questions about Hubbard's methodology or findings can be addressed by contacting him directly, < jhubbard48@cfl.rr.com>.
####################################################################################
STEALTH LIFE DETECTION INSTRUMENTS ABOARD CURIOSITY
Gilbert V. Levin
Adjunct Professor, Beyond Center, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Arizona
State University
Honorary Professor, Centre for Astrobiology, University of Buckingham (UK)
 
ABSTRACT
NASA has often stated (e.g. MSL Science Corner1) that it’s Mars Science
Laboratory (MSL), “Curiosity,” Mission to Mars carries no life detection
experiments. This is in keeping with NASA’s 36-year explicit ban on such, imposed
immediately after the 1976 Viking Mission to Mars. The space agency attributes the
ban to the “ambiguity” of that Mission’s Labeled Release (LR) life detection
experiment, fearing an adverse effect on the space program should a similar
“inconclusive” result come from a new robotic quest. Yet, despite the NASA ban,
this author, the Viking LR Experimenter, contends there are “stealth life detection
instruments” aboard Curiosity. These are life detection instruments in the sense
that they can free the Viking LR from the pall of ambiguity that has held it prisoner
so long. Curiosity’s stealth instruments are those seeking organic compounds, and
the mission’s high-resolution camera system. Results from any or all of these
devices, coupled with the Viking LR data, can confirm the LR’s life detection claim.
In one possible scenario, Curiosity can, of itself, completely corroborate the finding
of life on Mars. MSL has just successfully landed on Mars. Hopefully, its stealth
confirmations of life will be reported shortly.
 
Introduction
The spacecraft Curiosity has successfully landed on Mars. This is NASA’s largest
planetary effort. However, while the search for life beyond the Earth remains a
prime priority of NASA, Curiosity has no life detection experiment. In the 36 years
since Viking’s landing, July 20, 1976, NASA has not sent another life detection
experiment to Mars; indeed, life detection experiments have been specifically
prohibited. The plan, instead, has been to examine a sample of Martian regolith
brought to Earth, an event probably decades in the future. Despite this long
deferment in its quest, NASA’s Director of the Mars Exploration Program, Doug
McCuistion, recently said2, "Seeking the signs of life still remains the ultimate
goal." That goal may be nearer at hand than NASA indicates. In the author’s
opinion, highly sensitive instruments aboard Curiosity have the capability of
confirming that the Viking Labeled Release experiment did detect living
microorganisms on the surface of Mars.
 
Background
The LR’s claim3 to life is based on responses obtained when a 14C labeled nutrient
solution was applied to samples of Martian soil. Strong evolution of 14C-labeled
gas(es) occurred immediately following injection of the nutrient, and continued in a
pattern, in both amplitude and kinetics, very similar to that obtained from many LR
tests of terrestrial soils. On Mars, as on Earth, confirmation of the biological nature
of a positive result was sought by heating a duplicate sample to a temperature to kill
or impair microorganisms, but not high enough to destroy soil chemicals that might
have reacted with the nutrient compounds. All such control tests on Mars indicated
microorganisms, not chemicals, as the source of the active responses4. Table 1
summarizes the Martian results.
 
TABLE 1
SUMMARY OF VIKING LR MARS RESULTS
 
Positive responses were obtained from soils at both Viking landers
Soil* heated to 160° C for three hours produced nil response
Soil** heated to 51° C for three hours prior to testing produced several small sporadic
peaks (5%-10% of positive response) each of which was further reduced by
approximately 90% prior to the start of the next peak
 
Soil** heated to 46° C for 3 hours produced kinetics similar to positive response, but
70% reduced in amplitude
 
Soils maintained two and three months, respectively, in the VL1 and VL2 soil
distribution boxes, in dark, at approximately 7-10° C, under ambient Mars atmosphere,
pressure and humidity, produced nil responses
 
Soil** protected from UV by overlying rock produced typical active response
Upon second injection of nutrient, approximately 20% of gas already evolved was reabsorbed into the soil, and gradually re-evolved over period of two months, unusual for
most LR tests on Earth, but similar to a test of an Antarctic soil
*Run at VL1 only.
** Run at VL2 only.
 
 
Subsequently, independent approaches5, 6 indicated a circadian rhythm in the LR
data, thereby supporting a biological conclusion. Most recently, an entirely new
approach7, based on complexity analysis of the LR data, produced a result that
strongly favored biology.
 
Over the years since Viking, many theories have attempted to explain away the
biological nature of the LR. No experiment or theory has survived scientific
scrutiny, nor has any experiment been able to duplicate the LR responses and
controls without using living organisms8. Principal among the arguments against
life has been the failure of the Viking organic analysis instrument (GCMS – gas
chromatograph-mass spectrometer) to detect any organic matter in the same soil
samples from which the LR got its life responses. Although researchers9, 10 have
demonstrated deficiencies in the Viking GCMS that impugn its negative result, the
presumed lack of organics remains the only substantial barrier to general
acceptance of the LR claim.
 
In an early attempt to resolve the issue raised by the Viking LR, the author
examined all lander images taken at Viking sites 1 and 2. He reported11 finding
colored patches, ranging from ochre to yellow to greenish, on some of the
foreground rocks. Six channel spectral analyses of the patches found that their
color, hue and intensity closely matched those same parameters of terrestrial lichen
as analyzed by the Viking Lander Imaging System. However, resolution of the
Viking images was too coarse to support any claim to life based on optical spectral
analysis alone.
 
Curiosity’s Stealth Life Detection Instruments
While none of the extensive array of Curiosity’s Mars Surface Laboratory (MSL)12
can detect life, several of its instruments can produce results that could confirm the
Viking LR’s claim to have discovered Martian endogenous life. Coupled with the
Viking LR data, they, thus, may be termed life detection instruments. They are
shown in Table 2.
 
Table 2. Curiosity’s “Stealth” Life Detection Instruments
Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) has the following components that can execute lifepertinent analyses:
 
Oven – this can heat samples to 1,000o C. The vapors and gases produced
can be sent to: Quadrupole Mass Spec (QMS)13. The QMS can identify organic
compounds obtained from the soil. It can also analyze the Martian
atmosphere for organic compounds. It is sensitive to the sub ppb
level. The stated range of molecular weights is 2 – 235 Da. SAM will
likely use techniques14 that process data to identify much heavier
organic molecules, such as peptides and proteins. The QMS can also
determine the isotope ratios of C, H and O and their respective
abundances.
 
Gas Chromatograph (GC)15. The GC can identify specific gases
separated by the QMS.
 
Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS). The TLS can analyze atmospheric
components, and can determine isotopic ratios of atom constituents of CO2
and CH4, which ratios, it has been proposed, can distinguish between
biological and chemical origin of these gases. However, this could not
determine whether any biological indication came from living or dead
organisms.
 
Cameras – a system of cameras is carried aboard.
 
MastCam. Two cameras are mast mounted. They take images in true
color, and have auto focus ranging from 2 m to infinity. They can
take high definition videos. They are equipped with a Hand Lens
System, also imaging in true color, with resolutions up to 14.5 um per
pixel. Focus of the Hand Lens System is from mm distances to
infinity. In addition, there is a Microscopic Probe, capable of color
imaging with a spatial resolution down to three pixels (um).
ChemCam. This is a truly novel and potent innovation, termed
“laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy.” A laser gun is fired at a
selected target. The action vaporizes some of the rock material. The
vapor produced is then remotely and instantly analyzed in its visible,
near-UV and near-IR spectra. The instrument has a 20 cm field of
view, within which it can resolve a target as little as one mm in
diameter at a distance of 10 m.
 
The Case for Organic Matter on Mars.
 
Despite the failure to find any organic compounds in the surface material or
atmosphere of Mars by the only instrument to report on such, the Viking GCMS16,
circumstantial evidence overwhelmingly indicates both the deposition and formation
of organic matter on Mars. Further, the Viking GCMS has been found wanting in
that it did not pyrolyze its soils samples at a sufficiently high enough temperature17,
and that the presence of perchlorates in the soil samples may have obliterated any
trace of organics.18 It seems certain that organic matter was deposited on Mars, as
it was on Earth, by comets, meteors and meteorites, impacting densely in the years
soon after formation of the planets, and, at greatly reduced frequency, continuing to
this day. Also, Mars, again like Earth, must be receiving thousands of tons or
organic matter deposited annually by interplanetary dust particles.
 
In addition to receiving organic matter from space, there is strong evidence that
Mars manufactures its own. This evidence comes from the Viking Pyrolytic Release
(PR) 19 life detection experiment. The PR sought to measure carbon assimilation by
living microorganisms by exposing Martian soil to simulated Martian sunlight in a
chamber containing the 7 mb Martian atmosphere to which its CO 2 and CO was
supplemented with 2.5 mb of 14CO2 and 14 CO in a ratio of 15:1, respectively. In
the analysis phase, a statistically significant level of radioactivity in the soil organics
would be evidence of assimilation. On Mars, the PR yielded tantalizing results that
for a short time were considered presumptive evidence of biology. However, the low
absolute value of the signal, while significant over the radioactive background, and
the still-positive result of the heated (“sterilized”) control supported a non-biological
interpretation.20
 
The paper21 claiming that the LR detected life also showed that the Viking Pyrolytic
Release (PR) experiment had discovered that organic material was actually being
photochemically synthesized on current Mars. This might be thought of as a Miller-
Urey experiment on the endogenous Martian atmosphere. Not only did organic
compounds form, they survived in the soil sample for the five-sol experimental cycle.
 
This survival rebutted the oft-cited claim that the surface of Mars was so oxidative
that it would destroy any life and organic matter, thereby explaining the generally
perceived absence of both. Accumulation of organic matter under Martian ambient
conditions was demonstrated within the PR instrument. This production of
organics on Mars should have been anticipated from the pre-Viking work22, 23 .
The on-going production of organic matter on Mars was again demonstrated in
post-Viking studies24, but, strangely, was not appreciated as the major finding it
was, confirming the indigenous formation and survival of organic matter on Mars.
 
While stating25 that, “The results are startling,” the PR experimenters then
minimized their finding by saying, “If organic Matter is being synthesized on Mars,
it does not accumulate above the sensitivity threshold of the GCMS.” They, thus,
succumbed to the reputed sensitivity of the Viking GCMS, ignoring the survival of
the organic matter formed in the PR, which indicates the organics must continue to
accumulate well beyond that level. In fact, the PR results should have been
immediately recognized as a strong indication that the Viking GCMS was not
working properly.
 
Last year, the author called this matter to the attention of Dr. Jerry S. Hubbard,
Co-Experimenter on the Viking PR. Dr. Hubbard then went into his files and
produced unpublished data from his laboratory work on the production of
photocatalytically synthesized organic compounds from simulated Martian
atmosphere under simulated sunlight. Formic acid, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and
glycolic acid comprised about 85% of the 14C-products, with the remainder being
unidentified compounds. Hubbard’s previously unpublished data presented in
 
Table 3 show the yields of photocatalytic synthesis products on three model Mars
soils irradiated with simulated Mars sunlight. Low levels of abiotic synthesis were
also detected in post-Viking studies26 with the standard PR removal of UV
frequencies below 320 nm. Hubbard27 calculated the carbon assimilated in three
light, dry incubations of the Martian Chryse soils28. The Viking data correspond to
10.5, 2.9 and 3.6 pmoles of organic carbon, if produced from 14CO, or 37.9, 10.7 and
12.3 pmoles, if produced from 14CO2.
 
In the Viking PR instrument, an optical filter was installed which removed
wavelengths = 320 nm from the light source The filtered light was much less
effective in driving the abiotic synthesis of simple organics, thus reducing the
possibility of a false positive result. Accordingly, the light in the PR instrument on
Mars was not a true simulation of sunlight there. The new data in Table 3 show
that, when the light used simulates the Martian flux, some 3 orders of magnitude
more organic matter is formed over the amount formed in the UV-protected PR on
Mars.
 
However, it is important to point out that the organic compounds produced in the
PR were of relatively small molecular size. Hence, they provide no direct evidence
for biology-sized molecules on Mars. Nonetheless, these repetitive and consistent
results raise a strong challenge to the negative findings of the Viking GCMS. Added
to the previously stated sources of organic matter on Mars, they leave little doubt
that MSL will find organic compounds in the soil of Mars.
 
TABLE 3
Photocatalytic Synthesis of Organics on Model Mars Soils using
Simulated Mars Sunlight
Samplea Irradiationb nmoles of carbon recovered
Gas phasec Soil extractd
_____________________ ___________
14CO 14 CO2 14C-organics
Volcanic ash shale 7 day 13.5 17.3 117.0
Mars analog soil 7 day 93.9 32.0 10.8
Montmorillonite 3 day 106.9 31.9 13.4
a Samples(300 mg) in 5.5 ml quartz tubes were predried at 145oC for 16 hr and then attached to a vacuum/gas mixing apparatus while still hot. Sample tubes were filled with CO2 and evacuated five times.
bThe evacuated tubes were filled with 320 torr of 12 CO2 and 0.5 torr of 14 CO(145 nmoles) and then mounted horizontally on a wheel which rotated at 2 rpm. With the light path perpendicular to the axis of rotation samples were irradiated with a high pressure xenon source filtered through 2.5 mm
Vycor glass, which removed UV < 220 nm, with the sample incident light approximating the flux on the Martian surface. The maximum and average intensities reaching the samples were 30 and 17 mW·cm-2.
c Gases were separated and their radioactivity quantified29.
D Samples were extracted in boiling water and radioactivity quantified30.
Credit: Dr. Jerry S. Hubbard.
 
The most rapid and efficient conversion occurred on the volcanic ash shale where
81% of the 145 nmoles of available carbon in CO and 87% of the carbon in the
consumed CO were recovered in the organic products in the soil. With the Mars
analog soil the conversion values relative to the available CO and the consumed
CO were 7.4% and 21%, respectively. For montmorillonite after the 3-day
irradiation, 35% of the carbon in the depleted CO was recovered in the soil
organics. Hubbard states, “Any one of the three diverse model soils would be an
effective substratum for the abiotic synthesis on Mars.” Beyond this Mars-specific
evidence, a very recent paper31 makes the case for the formation of complex organic
matter throughout all planetary systems, including our solar system. Thus, the
stage seems set for Curiosity to find even complex organics on Mars near or on the
surface. Another recent paper32 estimates that complex organic molecules as little
as only several cm beneath the surface of Mars can survive cosmic radiation, thus
being readily available for detection by Curiosity’s MSL.
 
Biological Relevance of SAM’s Findings. SAM’s QMS, GC and TLS have the
ability to detect organic compounds that would be present in soils even sparsely
populated with microorganisms, well within the reach of the LR’s sensitivity (some
10 cells). Moreover, with the inductive analytical technique cited above for the
QMS, any gases detected could be established as having come from specific peptides,
proteins or other large molecules of biological relevance. The GC and the TLS can
also make such determinations. Furthermore, the isotopic analysis and ratios of the
isotopes of carbon and hydrogen in any methane found can be indicative of a
chemical or biological origin of the methane. Add the extraordinary power of the
ChemCam, with its broad spectroscopic capabilities, and it is apparent that the
MLS can finally settle the long-standing issue of whether or not there are organics
on Mars. It can also establish whether there are organic compounds present that
are commonly associated with biological activity on Earth. In themselves, as NASA
has said, such findings would not be proof of life.
 
Complex organic molecules have often been stated to be “biomarkers,” meaning
that their detection would be conclusive evidence for life. However, it is likely that,
were even DNA found, such “evidence” would be quickly relegated to the dust bin of
doubt by Occam’s razor.33 All such evidence will be deemed as more likely to
have occurred through abiotic happenstance rather than having required the
development of a living entity to produce it.
 
The unintended and highly significant outcome of Curiosity’s search would be its
confirmation of complex organic compounds on Mars. This finding would remove
the last, lingering support from the dwindling, but remaining consensus that the
Viking LR results are not proof of life. The LR results are not a snapshot, as are
the “biomarkers,” but are long-term, continuous evidence of metabolism, as
confirmed by metabolism-killing controls. Objectors would be driven to the
sometimes proposed concept that chemistry on Mars differs from chemistry on
Earth, that some mysterious reaction, not yet achievable in laboratories, is
mimicking life. This would be a difficult case to make before competent chemists
and physicists.
 
Visual Evidence for Life.
The radiometric (“true color”) image of the Viking 1 landing site, Figure 1, shows
many interesting features and colors.
Fig. 1. Radiometric (“true color”) Viking Image 12A006/001, Viking 1 Lander
Site.
Examination of all Viking Lander images showed not only colored (ochre to yellowto-
yellow-green to green) patches on some of the foreground rocks, but seasonal
changes in the colors and patterns of the same objects when viewed under the same
conditions, as seen, for example, in Figures 2a and 2b.
Fig. 2a. Fig 2b.
Fig. 2a. Radiometric color picture of Viking lander site 1, taken sol 1. Viking
Picture 12A006/001; Fig. 2b. Same view (but different time of day) taken sol 302
showing changes on rocks and ground surface. Viking Picture 12Dl25/302.
Radiometric images (true color) were taken at the same time and sun angle each
Mars year for three consecutive years. Even though a soil sample had been
retrieved from the area between years one and two, color and pattern changes
independent of detritus from the sampling are seen over the years. See Figure
3.
FIG. 3. Radiometric Images over a three-year span at Viking site 1.
Lichen are called “the pioneers of vegetation” because they are frequently the
first organisms that appear on newly habitable rocks or soil, as exemplified by
their early appearance on volcanically-formed island of Surtsey. Capable of
surviving under severe conditions by undergoing cryptobiosis, they might survive
within debris ejected from Earth to Mars by meteoric impact. Since Viking,
lichen have been reported34 to survive under simulated Martian conditions and
the conditions of outer space. From time to time, lichen have been mentioned as
likely candidates for life on Mars. In this context, Dr. Mike Meyer, Director of
NASA’s Planetary Programs, exhibited35 the lichen-coated rock seen in Figure
3a. Figure 3b. shows “Delta Rock” imaged at Viking lander site 1.
Fig. 4a. Lichen-Coated Rock Fig. 4b. “Delta Rock” on Mars
As stated above, Viking’s imaging system was too coarse in its resolution to support
its six-channel spectral analysis that showed a striking coincidence between the
greenish spots on Martian rocks and green lichen on terrestrial rocks when viewed
under the JPL Viking Imaging System. The extraordinary capabilities of the
Curiosity camera systems offer an opportunity to resolve whether any such patches
found by the MSL are biological or not. Biological features, such as foliose or
crustose patterns, hyphae, cortex, medulla and cephalodia of lichen might readily be
identified by the hi res camera and the hand lens. Alien life form on Mars might
well exhibit features morphologically attributable to biology.
Visual and Chemical Proof of Life
As mentioned above, Curiosity can, in itself, completely corroborate the presence of
life on Mars. Should colored patches be seen on rocks, after their close visual
inspection, these patches can be targeted by the ChemCam. The spectroscopic
information obtained might support the visible evidence for life, making a “bulletproof,”
or Occam-resistant case for life.
The author conveyed these concepts of the camera “stealth” life detection
experiments to Dr. Michael Malin, developer and Principal Investigator of the
Curiosity camera systems, together with the paper cited above that first indicated
colored patches on Martian rocks. Dr. Malin said36 he would closely examine any
such spots at high resolution, but said mission operations prevented him from
returning to the same locations to look for temporal changes as I had further
suggested. The author believes, however, that, should SAM and ChemCam show
positive evidence for life, the Curiosity Mission will direct the MSL rover back to
the same spot at a date sufficient to show changes in color or pattern resulting from
growth or decay. This could constitute the greatest feat imaginable for the Curiosity
mission.
References:
1 http://msl-scicorner.jpl.nasa.gov, science goals, July 15, 2011.
2 Quoted in Discovery News, By Irene Klotz, Apr 16, 2012 07:51 AM ET.
3 Levin, G. V., "The Viking Labeled Release Experiment and Life on Mars," in Instruments,
Methods, and Missions for the Investigation of Extraterrestrial Microorganisms, Proc. SPIE, 3111,
146-161, 1997.
4 Levin, G. V., “Modern Myths of Mars,” Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology,
6309, 6309OC-1 -15, SPIE Proc., 2006.
5 Miller, J.D, P.A. Straat, and G.V. Levin, “Periodic Analysis of the Viking Lander Labeled Release
Experiment,” Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology, SPIE Proceedings, 4495, 96-
107, July 2001.
6 Miller, J. D., et al., “A Circadian Biosignature in the Labeled Release Data from Mars?,”
Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology, SPIE Proceedings, 5906, OC1-10, 2005.
7 Bianciardi, G., et al., “Complexity Analysis of the Viking Labeled Release Experiments,” Int'l J.
of Aeronautical & Space Sci., 13(1), 14-26, 2012.
8 Levin, G. V., “Chapter 9 Revisited,” The Microbes of Mars, Addendum to Mars: the Living
Planet, Barry DiGregorio, Kindle eBook, 2011.
9 Benner, S. et al., “The missing organic molecules on Mars,” PNAS, 97, 6, 2435-2430, 2000.
10 Navarro-González et al., “The limitations on organic detection in Mars-like soils by thermal
volatilization–gas chromatography–MS and their implications for the Viking
results,” PNAS, 103, 16089-16094, 2006.
11 Levin, G. V., P. A. Straat and W. D. Benton, “Color and Feature Changes at Mars Viking
LanderSite,” J. Theoret. Biol., 75, 381-390, 1978.
12 Op. Cit. 1.
13 Mahaffy1, P. R., et al., “Calibration of the Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer of the Sample
Analysis at Mars Instrument Suite,” Goddard Space Flight Center, Code 699, Greenbelt, MD
20771 42nd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, 2011.
14 Trauger, S. A., W. Webb and G. Siuzdak, “Peptide and Protein Analysis with Mass
Spectrometry,” Spectroscopy, IOS Press, 16, 15-28, 2002.
15 Op. Cit. 12.
16 Biemann, K., et al., "The Search for Organic Substances and Inorganic Volatile Compounds in
the Surface of Mars," J. Geophys. Res., 82, 4641, 1977.
17 Op. Cit. 9.
18Op. Cit 10.
19 Horowitz, N H., Hobby, G. L., Hubbard, J. S., “Viking on Mars: the carbon
assimilation experiments,” J. Geophys. Res. 82, 4659-4662, 1977.
20 Ibid.
21 Op.Cit. 3.
22Hubbard, J. S., J. P. Hardy, N. H. Horowitz, “Photocatalytic synthesis of organic
compounds from CO and H2O in a simulated Martian atmosphere,” Proc. Nat.
Acad. Sci.. 68, 574-578, 1971.
23 Hubbard, J. S., et al., “Photocatalytic synthesis of organic compounds from CO and water:
involvement of surfaces in the formation of products,” J. Mol. Evol. 14, 149-166, 1973.
24 Hubbard, J. S., “Laboratory simulations of the pyrolytic release experiment: an interim report.”
J. Mol. Evol. 14, 211-221, 1979.
25 Op. Cit 19.
26 Op Cit. 24
27 Ibid.
28 Op. Cit. 19.
29 Op. Cit. 22.
30 Ibid.
31 Ciesla, F. J., and Scott A. Sanford, “Organic Synthesis via Irradiation and Warming of Ice
Grains in the Solar Nebula,” Science, 452- 454, 2012.
32 Pavlov, A. A., et al., “Degradation of the Organic Molecules in the Shallow Subsurface of Mars
due to Irradiation by Cosmic Rays,”Geophys. Res. Lett., 39, 13, doi:10.1029/2012GL052166,
2012.
33 Levin, G. V., “Can Chirality Give Proof of Extinct or Extant Life?”, Astrobiology Science
Conference, AZ State University, April 26–29, 2010.
34 De la Torre, R., et al., “Survival of lichens and bacteria exposed to outer space
conditions. Results of the Lithopanspermia experiments,” doi:10.1016/j, 03.010, Icarus,
2010.
35 Astrobiology Magazine, Retrospections, Mars, posted Sept. 18, 2006.
36 Dr. Michael Malin, developer and Principal Investigator, Curiosity camera systems, Malin
Systems, Inc., private communication, Nov. 27, Nov. 28, 2011.
Acknowledgement:
The author would like to acknowledge the help of Dr. Jerry S. Hubbard, Co-Experimenter of the
Pyrolytic Release (PR) life detection experiment, for discussing the import of the PR with respect
to organic matter currently forming on Mars, in supplying unpublished PR data, and in reviewing this paper. Questions about Hubbard's methodology or findings can be addressed by contacting him directly, < jhubbard48@cfl.rr.com>.
####################################################################################
STEALTH LIFE DETECTION INSTRUMENTS ABOARD CURIOSITY
Gilbert V. Levin
Adjunct Professor, Beyond Center, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Arizona
State University
Honorary Professor, Centre for Astrobiology, University of Buckingham (UK)
 
ABSTRACT
NASA has often stated (e.g. MSL Science Corner1) that it’s Mars Science
Laboratory (MSL), “Curiosity,” Mission to Mars carries no life detection
experiments. This is in keeping with NASA’s 36-year explicit ban on such, imposed
immediately after the 1976 Viking Mission to Mars. The space agency attributes the
ban to the “ambiguity” of that Mission’s Labeled Release (LR) life detection
experiment, fearing an adverse effect on the space program should a similar
“inconclusive” result come from a new robotic quest. Yet, despite the NASA ban,
this author, the Viking LR Experimenter, contends there are “stealth life detection
instruments” aboard Curiosity. These are life detection instruments in the sense
that they can free the Viking LR from the pall of ambiguity that has held it prisoner
so long. Curiosity’s stealth instruments are those seeking organic compounds, and
the mission’s high-resolution camera system. Results from any or all of these
devices, coupled with the Viking LR data, can confirm the LR’s life detection claim.
In one possible scenario, Curiosity can, of itself, completely corroborate the finding
of life on Mars. MSL has just successfully landed on Mars. Hopefully, its stealth
confirmations of life will be reported shortly.
 
Introduction
The spacecraft Curiosity has successfully landed on Mars. This is NASA’s largest
planetary effort. However, while the search for life beyond the Earth remains a
prime priority of NASA, Curiosity has no life detection experiment. In the 36 years
since Viking’s landing, July 20, 1976, NASA has not sent another life detection
experiment to Mars; indeed, life detection experiments have been specifically
prohibited. The plan, instead, has been to examine a sample of Martian regolith
brought to Earth, an event probably decades in the future. Despite this long
deferment in its quest, NASA’s Director of the Mars Exploration Program, Doug
McCuistion, recently said2, "Seeking the signs of life still remains the ultimate
goal." That goal may be nearer at hand than NASA indicates. In the author’s
opinion, highly sensitive instruments aboard Curiosity have the capability of
confirming that the Viking Labeled Release experiment did detect living
microorganisms on the surface of Mars.
 
Background
The LR’s claim3 to life is based on responses obtained when a 14C labeled nutrient
solution was applied to samples of Martian soil. Strong evolution of 14C-labeled
gas(es) occurred immediately following injection of the nutrient, and continued in a
pattern, in both amplitude and kinetics, very similar to that obtained from many LR
tests of terrestrial soils. On Mars, as on Earth, confirmation of the biological nature
of a positive result was sought by heating a duplicate sample to a temperature to kill
or impair microorganisms, but not high enough to destroy soil chemicals that might
have reacted with the nutrient compounds. All such control tests on Mars indicated
microorganisms, not chemicals, as the source of the active responses4. Table 1
summarizes the Martian results.
 
TABLE 1
SUMMARY OF VIKING LR MARS RESULTS
 
Positive responses were obtained from soils at both Viking landers
Soil* heated to 160° C for three hours produced nil response
Soil** heated to 51° C for three hours prior to testing produced several small sporadic
peaks (5%-10% of positive response) each of which was further reduced by
approximately 90% prior to the start of the next peak
 
Soil** heated to 46° C for 3 hours produced kinetics similar to positive response, but
70% reduced in amplitude
 
Soils maintained two and three months, respectively, in the VL1 and VL2 soil
distribution boxes, in dark, at approximately 7-10° C, under ambient Mars atmosphere,
pressure and humidity, produced nil responses
 
Soil** protected from UV by overlying rock produced typical active response
Upon second injection of nutrient, approximately 20% of gas already evolved was reabsorbed into the soil, and gradually re-evolved over period of two months, unusual for
most LR tests on Earth, but similar to a test of an Antarctic soil
*Run at VL1 only.
** Run at VL2 only.
 
 
Subsequently, independent approaches5, 6 indicated a circadian rhythm in the LR
data, thereby supporting a biological conclusion. Most recently, an entirely new
approach7, based on complexity analysis of the LR data, produced a result that
strongly favored biology.
 
Over the years since Viking, many theories have attempted to explain away the
biological nature of the LR. No experiment or theory has survived scientific
scrutiny, nor has any experiment been able to duplicate the LR responses and
controls without using living organisms8. Principal among the arguments against
life has been the failure of the Viking organic analysis instrument (GCMS – gas
chromatograph-mass spectrometer) to detect any organic matter in the same soil
samples from which the LR got its life responses. Although researchers9, 10 have
demonstrated deficiencies in the Viking GCMS that impugn its negative result, the
presumed lack of organics remains the only substantial barrier to general
acceptance of the LR claim.
 
In an early attempt to resolve the issue raised by the Viking LR, the author
examined all lander images taken at Viking sites 1 and 2. He reported11 finding
colored patches, ranging from ochre to yellow to greenish, on some of the
foreground rocks. Six channel spectral analyses of the patches found that their
color, hue and intensity closely matched those same parameters of terrestrial lichen
as analyzed by the Viking Lander Imaging System. However, resolution of the
Viking images was too coarse to support any claim to life based on optical spectral
analysis alone.
 
Curiosity’s Stealth Life Detection Instruments
While none of the extensive array of Curiosity’s Mars Surface Laboratory (MSL)12
can detect life, several of its instruments can produce results that could confirm the
Viking LR’s claim to have discovered Martian endogenous life. Coupled with the
Viking LR data, they, thus, may be termed life detection instruments. They are
shown in Table 2.
 
Table 2. Curiosity’s “Stealth” Life Detection Instruments
Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) has the following components that can execute lifepertinent analyses:
 
Oven – this can heat samples to 1,000o C. The vapors and gases produced
can be sent to: Quadrupole Mass Spec (QMS)13. The QMS can identify organic
compounds obtained from the soil. It can also analyze the Martian
atmosphere for organic compounds. It is sensitive to the sub ppb
level. The stated range of molecular weights is 2 – 235 Da. SAM will
likely use techniques14 that process data to identify much heavier
organic molecules, such as peptides and proteins. The QMS can also
determine the isotope ratios of C, H and O and their respective
abundances.
 
Gas Chromatograph (GC)15. The GC can identify specific gases
separated by the QMS.
 
Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS). The TLS can analyze atmospheric
components, and can determine isotopic ratios of atom constituents of CO2
and CH4, which ratios, it has been proposed, can distinguish between
biological and chemical origin of these gases. However, this could not
determine whether any biological indication came from living or dead
organisms.
 
Cameras – a system of cameras is carried aboard.
 
MastCam. Two cameras are mast mounted. They take images in true
color, and have auto focus ranging from 2 m to infinity. They can
take high definition videos. They are equipped with a Hand Lens
System, also imaging in true color, with resolutions up to 14.5 um per
pixel. Focus of the Hand Lens System is from mm distances to
infinity. In addition, there is a Microscopic Probe, capable of color
imaging with a spatial resolution down to three pixels (um).
ChemCam. This is a truly novel and potent innovation, termed
“laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy.” A laser gun is fired at a
selected target. The action vaporizes some of the rock material. The
vapor produced is then remotely and instantly analyzed in its visible,
near-UV and near-IR spectra. The instrument has a 20 cm field of
view, within which it can resolve a target as little as one mm in
diameter at a distance of 10 m.
 
The Case for Organic Matter on Mars.
 
Despite the failure to find any organic compounds in the surface material or
atmosphere of Mars by the only instrument to report on such, the Viking GCMS16,
circumstantial evidence overwhelmingly indicates both the deposition and formation
of organic matter on Mars. Further, the Viking GCMS has been found wanting in
that it did not pyrolyze its soils samples at a sufficiently high enough temperature17,
and that the presence of perchlorates in the soil samples may have obliterated any
trace of organics.18 It seems certain that organic matter was deposited on Mars, as
it was on Earth, by comets, meteors and meteorites, impacting densely in the years
soon after formation of the planets, and, at greatly reduced frequency, continuing to
this day. Also, Mars, again like Earth, must be receiving thousands of tons or
organic matter deposited annually by interplanetary dust particles.
 
In addition to receiving organic matter from space, there is strong evidence that
Mars manufactures its own. This evidence comes from the Viking Pyrolytic Release
(PR) 19 life detection experiment. The PR sought to measure carbon assimilation by
living microorganisms by exposing Martian soil to simulated Martian sunlight in a
chamber containing the 7 mb Martian atmosphere to which its CO 2 and CO was
supplemented with 2.5 mb of 14CO2 and 14 CO in a ratio of 15:1, respectively. In
the analysis phase, a statistically significant level of radioactivity in the soil organics
would be evidence of assimilation. On Mars, the PR yielded tantalizing results that
for a short time were considered presumptive evidence of biology. However, the low
absolute value of the signal, while significant over the radioactive background, and
the still-positive result of the heated (“sterilized”) control supported a non-biological
interpretation.20
 
The paper21 claiming that the LR detected life also showed that the Viking Pyrolytic
Release (PR) experiment had discovered that organic material was actually being
photochemically synthesized on current Mars. This might be thought of as a Miller-
Urey experiment on the endogenous Martian atmosphere. Not only did organic
compounds form, they survived in the soil sample for the five-sol experimental cycle.
 
This survival rebutted the oft-cited claim that the surface of Mars was so oxidative
that it would destroy any life and organic matter, thereby explaining the generally
perceived absence of both. Accumulation of organic matter under Martian ambient
conditions was demonstrated within the PR instrument. This production of
organics on Mars should have been anticipated from the pre-Viking work22, 23 .
The on-going production of organic matter on Mars was again demonstrated in
post-Viking studies24, but, strangely, was not appreciated as the major finding it
was, confirming the indigenous formation and survival of organic matter on Mars.
 
While stating25 that, “The results are startling,” the PR experimenters then
minimized their finding by saying, “If organic Matter is being synthesized on Mars,
it does not accumulate above the sensitivity threshold of the GCMS.” They, thus,
succumbed to the reputed sensitivity of the Viking GCMS, ignoring the survival of
the organic matter formed in the PR, which indicates the organics must continue to
accumulate well beyond that level. In fact, the PR results should have been
immediately recognized as a strong indication that the Viking GCMS was not
working properly.
 
Last year, the author called this matter to the attention of Dr. Jerry S. Hubbard,
Co-Experimenter on the Viking PR. Dr. Hubbard then went into his files and
produced unpublished data from his laboratory work on the production of
photocatalytically synthesized organic compounds from simulated Martian
atmosphere under simulated sunlight. Formic acid, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and
glycolic acid comprised about 85% of the 14C-products, with the remainder being
unidentified compounds. Hubbard’s previously unpublished data presented in
 
Table 3 show the yields of photocatalytic synthesis products on three model Mars
soils irradiated with simulated Mars sunlight. Low levels of abiotic synthesis were
also detected in post-Viking studies26 with the standard PR removal of UV
frequencies below 320 nm. Hubbard27 calculated the carbon assimilated in three
light, dry incubations of the Martian Chryse soils28. The Viking data correspond to
10.5, 2.9 and 3.6 pmoles of organic carbon, if produced from 14CO, or 37.9, 10.7 and
12.3 pmoles, if produced from 14CO2.
 
In the Viking PR instrument, an optical filter was installed which removed
wavelengths = 320 nm from the light source The filtered light was much less
effective in driving the abiotic synthesis of simple organics, thus reducing the
possibility of a false positive result. Accordingly, the light in the PR instrument on
Mars was not a true simulation of sunlight there. The new data in Table 3 show
that, when the light used simulates the Martian flux, some 3 orders of magnitude
more organic matter is formed over the amount formed in the UV-protected PR on
Mars.
 
However, it is important to point out that the organic compounds produced in the
PR were of relatively small molecular size. Hence, they provide no direct evidence
for biology-sized molecules on Mars. Nonetheless, these repetitive and consistent
results raise a strong challenge to the negative findings of the Viking GCMS. Added
to the previously stated sources of organic matter on Mars, they leave little doubt
that MSL will find organic compounds in the soil of Mars.
 
TABLE 3
Photocatalytic Synthesis of Organics on Model Mars Soils using
Simulated Mars Sunlight
Samplea Irradiationb nmoles of carbon recovered
Gas phasec Soil extractd
_____________________ ___________
14CO 14 CO2 14C-organics
Volcanic ash shale 7 day 13.5 17.3 117.0
Mars analog soil 7 day 93.9 32.0 10.8
Montmorillonite 3 day 106.9 31.9 13.4
a Samples(300 mg) in 5.5 ml quartz tubes were predried at 145oC for 16 hr and then attached to a vacuum/gas mixing apparatus while still hot. Sample tubes were filled with CO2 and evacuated five times.
bThe evacuated tubes were filled with 320 torr of 12 CO2 and 0.5 torr of 14 CO(145 nmoles) and then mounted horizontally on a wheel which rotated at 2 rpm. With the light path perpendicular to the axis of rotation samples were irradiated with a high pressure xenon source filtered through 2.5 mm
Vycor glass, which removed UV < 220 nm, with the sample incident light approximating the flux on the Martian surface. The maximum and average intensities reaching the samples were 30 and 17 mW·cm-2.
c Gases were separated and their radioactivity quantified29.
D Samples were extracted in boiling water and radioactivity quantified30.
Credit: Dr. Jerry S. Hubbard.
 
The most rapid and efficient conversion occurred on the volcanic ash shale where
81% of the 145 nmoles of available carbon in CO and 87% of the carbon in the
consumed CO were recovered in the organic products in the soil. With the Mars
analog soil the conversion values relative to the available CO and the consumed
CO were 7.4% and 21%, respectively. For montmorillonite after the 3-day
irradiation, 35% of the carbon in the depleted CO was recovered in the soil
organics. Hubbard states, “Any one of the three diverse model soils would be an
effective substratum for the abiotic synthesis on Mars.” Beyond this Mars-specific
evidence, a very recent paper31 makes the case for the formation of complex organic
matter throughout all planetary systems, including our solar system. Thus, the
stage seems set for Curiosity to find even complex organics on Mars near or on the
surface. Another recent paper32 estimates that complex organic molecules as little
as only several cm beneath the surface of Mars can survive cosmic radiation, thus
being readily available for detection by Curiosity’s MSL.
 
Biological Relevance of SAM’s Findings. SAM’s QMS, GC and TLS have the
ability to detect organic compounds that would be present in soils even sparsely
populated with microorganisms, well within the reach of the LR’s sensitivity (some
10 cells). Moreover, with the inductive analytical technique cited above for the
QMS, any gases detected could be established as having come from specific peptides,
proteins or other large molecules of biological relevance. The GC and the TLS can
also make such determinations. Furthermore, the isotopic analysis and ratios of the
isotopes of carbon and hydrogen in any methane found can be indicative of a
chemical or biological origin of the methane. Add the extraordinary power of the
ChemCam, with its broad spectroscopic capabilities, and it is apparent that the
MLS can finally settle the long-standing issue of whether or not there are organics
on Mars. It can also establish whether there are organic compounds present that
are commonly associated with biological activity on Earth. In themselves, as NASA
has said, such findings would not be proof of life.
 
Complex organic molecules have often been stated to be “biomarkers,” meaning
that their detection would be conclusive evidence for life. However, it is likely that,
were even DNA found, such “evidence” would be quickly relegated to the dust bin of
doubt by Occam’s razor.33 All such evidence will be deemed as more likely to
have occurred through abiotic happenstance rather than having required the
development of a living entity to produce it.
 
The unintended and highly significant outcome of Curiosity’s search would be its
confirmation of complex organic compounds on Mars. This finding would remove
the last, lingering support from the dwindling, but remaining consensus that the
Viking LR results are not proof of life. The LR results are not a snapshot, as are
the “biomarkers,” but are long-term, continuous evidence of metabolism, as
confirmed by metabolism-killing controls. Objectors would be driven to the
sometimes proposed concept that chemistry on Mars differs from chemistry on
Earth, that some mysterious reaction, not yet achievable in laboratories, is
mimicking life. This would be a difficult case to make before competent chemists
and physicists.
 
Visual Evidence for Life.
The radiometric (“true color”) image of the Viking 1 landing site, Figure 1, shows
many interesting features and colors.
Fig. 1. Radiometric (“true color”) Viking Image 12A006/001, Viking 1 Lander
Site.
Examination of all Viking Lander images showed not only colored (ochre to yellowto-
yellow-green to green) patches on some of the foreground rocks, but seasonal
changes in the colors and patterns of the same objects when viewed under the same
conditions, as seen, for example, in Figures 2a and 2b.
Fig. 2a. Fig 2b.
Fig. 2a. Radiometric color picture of Viking lander site 1, taken sol 1. Viking
Picture 12A006/001; Fig. 2b. Same view (but different time of day) taken sol 302
showing changes on rocks and ground surface. Viking Picture 12Dl25/302.
Radiometric images (true color) were taken at the same time and sun angle each
Mars year for three consecutive years. Even though a soil sample had been
retrieved from the area between years one and two, color and pattern changes
independent of detritus from the sampling are seen over the years. See Figure
3.
FIG. 3. Radiometric Images over a three-year span at Viking site 1.
Lichen are called “the pioneers of vegetation” because they are frequently the
first organisms that appear on newly habitable rocks or soil, as exemplified by
their early appearance on volcanically-formed island of Surtsey. Capable of
surviving under severe conditions by undergoing cryptobiosis, they might survive
within debris ejected from Earth to Mars by meteoric impact. Since Viking,
lichen have been reported34 to survive under simulated Martian conditions and
the conditions of outer space. From time to time, lichen have been mentioned as
likely candidates for life on Mars. In this context, Dr. Mike Meyer, Director of
NASA’s Planetary Programs, exhibited35 the lichen-coated rock seen in Figure
3a. Figure 3b. shows “Delta Rock” imaged at Viking lander site 1.
Fig. 4a. Lichen-Coated Rock Fig. 4b. “Delta Rock” on Mars
As stated above, Viking’s imaging system was too coarse in its resolution to support
its six-channel spectral analysis that showed a striking coincidence between the
greenish spots on Martian rocks and green lichen on terrestrial rocks when viewed
under the JPL Viking Imaging System. The extraordinary capabilities of the
Curiosity camera systems offer an opportunity to resolve whether any such patches
found by the MSL are biological or not. Biological features, such as foliose or
crustose patterns, hyphae, cortex, medulla and cephalodia of lichen might readily be
identified by the hi res camera and the hand lens. Alien life form on Mars might
well exhibit features morphologically attributable to biology.
Visual and Chemical Proof of Life
As mentioned above, Curiosity can, in itself, completely corroborate the presence of
life on Mars. Should colored patches be seen on rocks, after their close visual
inspection, these patches can be targeted by the ChemCam. The spectroscopic
information obtained might support the visible evidence for life, making a “bulletproof,”
or Occam-resistant case for life.
The author conveyed these concepts of the camera “stealth” life detection
experiments to Dr. Michael Malin, developer and Principal Investigator of the
Curiosity camera systems, together with the paper cited above that first indicated
colored patches on Martian rocks. Dr. Malin said36 he would closely examine any
such spots at high resolution, but said mission operations prevented him from
returning to the same locations to look for temporal changes as I had further
suggested. The author believes, however, that, should SAM and ChemCam show
positive evidence for life, the Curiosity Mission will direct the MSL rover back to
the same spot at a date sufficient to show changes in color or pattern resulting from
growth or decay. This could constitute the greatest feat imaginable for the Curiosity
mission.
References:
1 http://msl-scicorner.jpl.nasa.gov, science goals, July 15, 2011.
2 Quoted in Discovery News, By Irene Klotz, Apr 16, 2012 07:51 AM ET.
3 Levin, G. V., "The Viking Labeled Release Experiment and Life on Mars," in Instruments,
Methods, and Missions for the Investigation of Extraterrestrial Microorganisms, Proc. SPIE, 3111,
146-161, 1997.
4 Levin, G. V., “Modern Myths of Mars,” Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology,
6309, 6309OC-1 -15, SPIE Proc., 2006.
5 Miller, J.D, P.A. Straat, and G.V. Levin, “Periodic Analysis of the Viking Lander Labeled Release
Experiment,” Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology, SPIE Proceedings, 4495, 96-
107, July 2001.
6 Miller, J. D., et al., “A Circadian Biosignature in the Labeled Release Data from Mars?,”
Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology, SPIE Proceedings, 5906, OC1-10, 2005.
7 Bianciardi, G., et al., “Complexity Analysis of the Viking Labeled Release Experiments,” Int'l J.
of Aeronautical & Space Sci., 13(1), 14-26, 2012.
8 Levin, G. V., “Chapter 9 Revisited,” The Microbes of Mars, Addendum to Mars: the Living
Planet, Barry DiGregorio, Kindle eBook, 2011.
9 Benner, S. et al., “The missing organic molecules on Mars,” PNAS, 97, 6, 2435-2430, 2000.
10 Navarro-González et al., “The limitations on organic detection in Mars-like soils by thermal
volatilization–gas chromatography–MS and their implications for the Viking
results,” PNAS, 103, 16089-16094, 2006.
11 Levin, G. V., P. A. Straat and W. D. Benton, “Color and Feature Changes at Mars Viking
LanderSite,” J. Theoret. Biol., 75, 381-390, 1978.
12 Op. Cit. 1.
13 Mahaffy1, P. R., et al., “Calibration of the Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer of the Sample
Analysis at Mars Instrument Suite,” Goddard Space Flight Center, Code 699, Greenbelt, MD
20771 42nd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, 2011.
14 Trauger, S. A., W. Webb and G. Siuzdak, “Peptide and Protein Analysis with Mass
Spectrometry,” Spectroscopy, IOS Press, 16, 15-28, 2002.
15 Op. Cit. 12.
16 Biemann, K., et al., "The Search for Organic Substances and Inorganic Volatile Compounds in
the Surface of Mars," J. Geophys. Res., 82, 4641, 1977.
17 Op. Cit. 9.
18Op. Cit 10.
19 Horowitz, N H., Hobby, G. L., Hubbard, J. S., “Viking on Mars: the carbon
assimilation experiments,” J. Geophys. Res. 82, 4659-4662, 1977.
20 Ibid.
21 Op.Cit. 3.
22Hubbard, J. S., J. P. Hardy, N. H. Horowitz, “Photocatalytic synthesis of organic
compounds from CO and H2O in a simulated Martian atmosphere,” Proc. Nat.
Acad. Sci.. 68, 574-578, 1971.
23 Hubbard, J. S., et al., “Photocatalytic synthesis of organic compounds from CO and water:
involvement of surfaces in the formation of products,” J. Mol. Evol. 14, 149-166, 1973.
24 Hubbard, J. S., “Laboratory simulations of the pyrolytic release experiment: an interim report.”
J. Mol. Evol. 14, 211-221, 1979.
25 Op. Cit 19.
26 Op Cit. 24
27 Ibid.
28 Op. Cit. 19.
29 Op. Cit. 22.
30 Ibid.
31 Ciesla, F. J., and Scott A. Sanford, “Organic Synthesis via Irradiation and Warming of Ice
Grains in the Solar Nebula,” Science, 452- 454, 2012.
32 Pavlov, A. A., et al., “Degradation of the Organic Molecules in the Shallow Subsurface of Mars
due to Irradiation by Cosmic Rays,”Geophys. Res. Lett., 39, 13, doi:10.1029/2012GL052166,
2012.
33 Levin, G. V., “Can Chirality Give Proof of Extinct or Extant Life?”, Astrobiology Science
Conference, AZ State University, April 26–29, 2010.
34 De la Torre, R., et al., “Survival of lichens and bacteria exposed to outer space
conditions. Results of the Lithopanspermia experiments,” doi:10.1016/j, 03.010, Icarus,
2010.
35 Astrobiology Magazine, Retrospections, Mars, posted Sept. 18, 2006.
36 Dr. Michael Malin, developer and Principal Investigator, Curiosity camera systems, Malin
Systems, Inc., private communication, Nov. 27, Nov. 28, 2011.
Acknowledgement:
The author would like to acknowledge the help of Dr. Jerry S. Hubbard, Co-Experimenter of the
Pyrolytic Release (PR) life detection experiment, for discussing the import of the PR with respect
to organic matter currently forming on Mars, in supplying unpublished PR data, and in reviewing this paper. Questions about Hubbard's methodology or findings can be addressed by contacting him directly, < jhubbard48@cfl.rr.com>.
####################################################################################
STEALTH LIFE DETECTION INSTRUMENTS ABOARD CURIOSITY
Gilbert V. Levin
Adjunct Professor, Beyond Center, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Arizona
State University
Honorary Professor, Centre for Astrobiology, University of Buckingham (UK)
 
ABSTRACT
NASA has often stated (e.g. MSL Science Corner1) that it’s Mars Science
Laboratory (MSL), “Curiosity,” Mission to Mars carries no life detection
experiments. This is in keeping with NASA’s 36-year explicit ban on such, imposed
immediately after the 1976 Viking Mission to Mars. The space agency attributes the
ban to the “ambiguity” of that Mission’s Labeled Release (LR) life detection
experiment, fearing an adverse effect on the space program should a similar
“inconclusive” result come from a new robotic quest. Yet, despite the NASA ban,
this author, the Viking LR Experimenter, contends there are “stealth life detection
instruments” aboard Curiosity. These are life detection instruments in the sense
that they can free the Viking LR from the pall of ambiguity that has held it prisoner
so long. Curiosity’s stealth instruments are those seeking organic compounds, and
the mission’s high-resolution camera system. Results from any or all of these
devices, coupled with the Viking LR data, can confirm the LR’s life detection claim.
In one possible scenario, Curiosity can, of itself, completely corroborate the finding
of life on Mars. MSL has just successfully landed on Mars. Hopefully, its stealth
confirmations of life will be reported shortly.
 
Introduction
The spacecraft Curiosity has successfully landed on Mars. This is NASA’s largest
planetary effort. However, while the search for life beyond the Earth remains a
prime priority of NASA, Curiosity has no life detection experiment. In the 36 years
since Viking’s landing, July 20, 1976, NASA has not sent another life detection
experiment to Mars; indeed, life detection experiments have been specifically
prohibited. The plan, instead, has been to examine a sample of Martian regolith
brought to Earth, an event probably decades in the future. Despite this long
deferment in its quest, NASA’s Director of the Mars Exploration Program, Doug
McCuistion, recently said2, "Seeking the signs of life still remains the ultimate
goal." That goal may be nearer at hand than NASA indicates. In the author’s
opinion, highly sensitive instruments aboard Curiosity have the capability of
confirming that the Viking Labeled Release experiment did detect living
microorganisms on the surface of Mars.
 
Background
The LR’s claim3 to life is based on responses obtained when a 14C labeled nutrient
solution was applied to samples of Martian soil. Strong evolution of 14C-labeled
gas(es) occurred immediately following injection of the nutrient, and continued in a
pattern, in both amplitude and kinetics, very similar to that obtained from many LR
tests of terrestrial soils. On Mars, as on Earth, confirmation of the biological nature
of a positive result was sought by heating a duplicate sample to a temperature to kill
or impair microorganisms, but not high enough to destroy soil chemicals that might
have reacted with the nutrient compounds. All such control tests on Mars indicated
microorganisms, not chemicals, as the source of the active responses4. Table 1
summarizes the Martian results.
 
TABLE 1
SUMMARY OF VIKING LR MARS RESULTS
 
Positive responses were obtained from soils at both Viking landers
Soil* heated to 160° C for three hours produced nil response
Soil** heated to 51° C for three hours prior to testing produced several small sporadic
peaks (5%-10% of positive response) each of which was further reduced by
approximately 90% prior to the start of the next peak
 
Soil** heated to 46° C for 3 hours produced kinetics similar to positive response, but
70% reduced in amplitude
 
Soils maintained two and three months, respectively, in the VL1 and VL2 soil
distribution boxes, in dark, at approximately 7-10° C, under ambient Mars atmosphere,
pressure and humidity, produced nil responses
 
Soil** protected from UV by overlying rock produced typical active response
Upon second injection of nutrient, approximately 20% of gas already evolved was reabsorbed into the soil, and gradually re-evolved over period of two months, unusual for
most LR tests on Earth, but similar to a test of an Antarctic soil
*Run at VL1 only.
** Run at VL2 only.
 
 
Subsequently, independent approaches5, 6 indicated a circadian rhythm in the LR
data, thereby supporting a biological conclusion. Most recently, an entirely new
approach7, based on complexity analysis of the LR data, produced a result that
strongly favored biology.
 
Over the years since Viking, many theories have attempted to explain away the
biological nature of the LR. No experiment or theory has survived scientific
scrutiny, nor has any experiment been able to duplicate the LR responses and
controls without using living organisms8. Principal among the arguments against
life has been the failure of the Viking organic analysis instrument (GCMS – gas
chromatograph-mass spectrometer) to detect any organic matter in the same soil
samples from which the LR got its life responses. Although researchers9, 10 have
demonstrated deficiencies in the Viking GCMS that impugn its negative result, the
presumed lack of organics remains the only substantial barrier to general
acceptance of the LR claim.
 
In an early attempt to resolve the issue raised by the Viking LR, the author
examined all lander images taken at Viking sites 1 and 2. He reported11 finding
colored patches, ranging from ochre to yellow to greenish, on some of the
foreground rocks. Six channel spectral analyses of the patches found that their
color, hue and intensity closely matched those same parameters of terrestrial lichen
as analyzed by the Viking Lander Imaging System. However, resolution of the
Viking images was too coarse to support any claim to life based on optical spectral
analysis alone.
 
Curiosity’s Stealth Life Detection Instruments
While none of the extensive array of Curiosity’s Mars Surface Laboratory (MSL)12
can detect life, several of its instruments can produce results that could confirm the
Viking LR’s claim to have discovered Martian endogenous life. Coupled with the
Viking LR data, they, thus, may be termed life detection instruments. They are
shown in Table 2.
 
Table 2. Curiosity’s “Stealth” Life Detection Instruments
Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) has the following components that can execute lifepertinent analyses:
 
Oven – this can heat samples to 1,000o C. The vapors and gases produced
can be sent to: Quadrupole Mass Spec (QMS)13. The QMS can identify organic
compounds obtained from the soil. It can also analyze the Martian
atmosphere for organic compounds. It is sensitive to the sub ppb
level. The stated range of molecular weights is 2 – 235 Da. SAM will
likely use techniques14 that process data to identify much heavier
organic molecules, such as peptides and proteins. The QMS can also
determine the isotope ratios of C, H and O and their respective
abundances.
 
Gas Chromatograph (GC)15. The GC can identify specific gases
separated by the QMS.
 
Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS). The TLS can analyze atmospheric
components, and can determine isotopic ratios of atom constituents of CO2
and CH4, which ratios, it has been proposed, can distinguish between
biological and chemical origin of these gases. However, this could not
determine whether any biological indication came from living or dead
organisms.
 
Cameras – a system of cameras is carried aboard.
 
MastCam. Two cameras are mast mounted. They take images in true
color, and have auto focus ranging from 2 m to infinity. They can
take high definition videos. They are equipped with a Hand Lens
System, also imaging in true color, with resolutions up to 14.5 um per
pixel. Focus of the Hand Lens System is from mm distances to
infinity. In addition, there is a Microscopic Probe, capable of color
imaging with a spatial resolution down to three pixels (um).
ChemCam. This is a truly novel and potent innovation, termed
“laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy.” A laser gun is fired at a
selected target. The action vaporizes some of the rock material. The
vapor produced is then remotely and instantly analyzed in its visible,
near-UV and near-IR spectra. The instrument has a 20 cm field of
view, within which it can resolve a target as little as one mm in
diameter at a distance of 10 m.
 
The Case for Organic Matter on Mars.
 
Despite the failure to find any organic compounds in the surface material or
atmosphere of Mars by the only instrument to report on such, the Viking GCMS16,
circumstantial evidence overwhelmingly indicates both the deposition and formation
of organic matter on Mars. Further, the Viking GCMS has been found wanting in
that it did not pyrolyze its soils samples at a sufficiently high enough temperature17,
and that the presence of perchlorates in the soil samples may have obliterated any
trace of organics.18 It seems certain that organic matter was deposited on Mars, as
it was on Earth, by comets, meteors and meteorites, impacting densely in the years
soon after formation of the planets, and, at greatly reduced frequency, continuing to
this day. Also, Mars, again like Earth, must be receiving thousands of tons or
organic matter deposited annually by interplanetary dust particles.
 
In addition to receiving organic matter from space, there is strong evidence that
Mars manufactures its own. This evidence comes from the Viking Pyrolytic Release
(PR) 19 life detection experiment. The PR sought to measure carbon assimilation by
living microorganisms by exposing Martian soil to simulated Martian sunlight in a
chamber containing the 7 mb Martian atmosphere to which its CO 2 and CO was
supplemented with 2.5 mb of 14CO2 and 14 CO in a ratio of 15:1, respectively. In
the analysis phase, a statistically significant level of radioactivity in the soil organics
would be evidence of assimilation. On Mars, the PR yielded tantalizing results that
for a short time were considered presumptive evidence of biology. However, the low
absolute value of the signal, while significant over the radioactive background, and
the still-positive result of the heated (“sterilized”) control supported a non-biological
interpretation.20
 
The paper21 claiming that the LR detected life also showed that the Viking Pyrolytic
Release (PR) experiment had discovered that organic material was actually being
photochemically synthesized on current Mars. This might be thought of as a Miller-
Urey experiment on the endogenous Martian atmosphere. Not only did organic
compounds form, they survived in the soil sample for the five-sol experimental cycle.
 
This survival rebutted the oft-cited claim that the surface of Mars was so oxidative
that it would destroy any life and organic matter, thereby explaining the generally
perceived absence of both. Accumulation of organic matter under Martian ambient
conditions was demonstrated within the PR instrument. This production of
organics on Mars should have been anticipated from the pre-Viking work22, 23 .
The on-going production of organic matter on Mars was again demonstrated in
post-Viking studies24, but, strangely, was not appreciated as the major finding it
was, confirming the indigenous formation and survival of organic matter on Mars.
 
While stating25 that, “The results are startling,” the PR experimenters then
minimized their finding by saying, “If organic Matter is being synthesized on Mars,
it does not accumulate above the sensitivity threshold of the GCMS.” They, thus,
succumbed to the reputed sensitivity of the Viking GCMS, ignoring the survival of
the organic matter formed in the PR, which indicates the organics must continue to
accumulate well beyond that level. In fact, the PR results should have been
immediately recognized as a strong indication that the Viking GCMS was not
working properly.
 
Last year, the author called this matter to the attention of Dr. Jerry S. Hubbard,
Co-Experimenter on the Viking PR. Dr. Hubbard then went into his files and
produced unpublished data from his laboratory work on the production of
photocatalytically synthesized organic compounds from simulated Martian
atmosphere under simulated sunlight. Formic acid, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and
glycolic acid comprised about 85% of the 14C-products, with the remainder being
unidentified compounds. Hubbard’s previously unpublished data presented in
 
Table 3 show the yields of photocatalytic synthesis products on three model Mars
soils irradiated with simulated Mars sunlight. Low levels of abiotic synthesis were
also detected in post-Viking studies26 with the standard PR removal of UV
frequencies below 320 nm. Hubbard27 calculated the carbon assimilated in three
light, dry incubations of the Martian Chryse soils28. The Viking data correspond to
10.5, 2.9 and 3.6 pmoles of organic carbon, if produced from 14CO, or 37.9, 10.7 and
12.3 pmoles, if produced from 14CO2.
 
In the Viking PR instrument, an optical filter was installed which removed
wavelengths = 320 nm from the light source The filtered light was much less
effective in driving the abiotic synthesis of simple organics, thus reducing the
possibility of a false positive result. Accordingly, the light in the PR instrument on
Mars was not a true simulation of sunlight there. The new data in Table 3 show
that, when the light used simulates the Martian flux, some 3 orders of magnitude
more organic matter is formed over the amount formed in the UV-protected PR on
Mars.
 
However, it is important to point out that the organic compounds produced in the
PR were of relatively small molecular size. Hence, they provide no direct evidence
for biology-sized molecules on Mars. Nonetheless, these repetitive and consistent
results raise a strong challenge to the negative findings of the Viking GCMS. Added
to the previously stated sources of organic matter on Mars, they leave little doubt
that MSL will find organic compounds in the soil of Mars.
 
TABLE 3
Photocatalytic Synthesis of Organics on Model Mars Soils using
Simulated Mars Sunlight
Samplea Irradiationb nmoles of carbon recovered
Gas phasec Soil extractd
_____________________ ___________
14CO 14 CO2 14C-organics
Volcanic ash shale 7 day 13.5 17.3 117.0
Mars analog soil 7 day 93.9 32.0 10.8
Montmorillonite 3 day 106.9 31.9 13.4
a Samples(300 mg) in 5.5 ml quartz tubes were predried at 145oC for 16 hr and then attached to a vacuum/gas mixing apparatus while still hot. Sample tubes were filled with CO2 and evacuated five times.
bThe evacuated tubes were filled with 320 torr of 12 CO2 and 0.5 torr of 14 CO(145 nmoles) and then mounted horizontally on a wheel which rotated at 2 rpm. With the light path perpendicular to the axis of rotation samples were irradiated with a high pressure xenon source filtered through 2.5 mm
Vycor glass, which removed UV < 220 nm, with the sample incident light approximating the flux on the Martian surface. The maximum and average intensities reaching the samples were 30 and 17 mW·cm-2.
c Gases were separated and their radioactivity quantified29.
D Samples were extracted in boiling water and radioactivity quantified30.
Credit: Dr. Jerry S. Hubbard.
 
The most rapid and efficient conversion occurred on the volcanic ash shale where
81% of the 145 nmoles of available carbon in CO and 87% of the carbon in the
consumed CO were recovered in the organic products in the soil. With the Mars
analog soil the conversion values relative to the available CO and the consumed
CO were 7.4% and 21%, respectively. For montmorillonite after the 3-day
irradiation, 35% of the carbon in the depleted CO was recovered in the soil
organics. Hubbard states, “Any one of the three diverse model soils would be an
effective substratum for the abiotic synthesis on Mars.” Beyond this Mars-specific
evidence, a very recent paper31 makes the case for the formation of complex organic
matter throughout all planetary systems, including our solar system. Thus, the
stage seems set for Curiosity to find even complex organics on Mars near or on the
surface. Another recent paper32 estimates that complex organic molecules as little
as only several cm beneath the surface of Mars can survive cosmic radiation, thus
being readily available for detection by Curiosity’s MSL.
 
Biological Relevance of SAM’s Findings. SAM’s QMS, GC and TLS have the
ability to detect organic compounds that would be present in soils even sparsely
populated with microorganisms, well within the reach of the LR’s sensitivity (some
10 cells). Moreover, with the inductive analytical technique cited above for the
QMS, any gases detected could be established as having come from specific peptides,
proteins or other large molecules of biological relevance. The GC and the TLS can
also make such determinations. Furthermore, the isotopic analysis and ratios of the
isotopes of carbon and hydrogen in any methane found can be indicative of a
chemical or biological origin of the methane. Add the extraordinary power of the
ChemCam, with its broad spectroscopic capabilities, and it is apparent that the
MLS can finally settle the long-standing issue of whether or not there are organics
on Mars. It can also establish whether there are organic compounds present that
are commonly associated with biological activity on Earth. In themselves, as NASA
has said, such findings would not be proof of life.
 
Complex organic molecules have often been stated to be “biomarkers,” meaning
that their detection would be conclusive evidence for life. However, it is likely that,
were even DNA found, such “evidence” would be quickly relegated to the dust bin of
doubt by Occam’s razor.33 All such evidence will be deemed as more likely to
have occurred through abiotic happenstance rather than having required the
development of a living entity to produce it.
 
The unintended and highly significant outcome of Curiosity’s search would be its
confirmation of complex organic compounds on Mars. This finding would remove
the last, lingering support from the dwindling, but remaining consensus that the
Viking LR results are not proof of life. The LR results are not a snapshot, as are
the “biomarkers,” but are long-term, continuous evidence of metabolism, as
confirmed by metabolism-killing controls. Objectors would be driven to the
sometimes proposed concept that chemistry on Mars differs from chemistry on
Earth, that some mysterious reaction, not yet achievable in laboratories, is
mimicking life. This would be a difficult case to make before competent chemists
and physicists.
 
Visual Evidence for Life.
The radiometric (“true color”) image of the Viking 1 landing site, Figure 1, shows
many interesting features and colors.
Fig. 1. Radiometric (“true color”) Viking Image 12A006/001, Viking 1 Lander
Site.
Examination of all Viking Lander images showed not only colored (ochre to yellowto-
yellow-green to green) patches on some of the foreground rocks, but seasonal
changes in the colors and patterns of the same objects when viewed under the same
conditions, as seen, for example, in Figures 2a and 2b.
Fig. 2a. Fig 2b.
Fig. 2a. Radiometric color picture of Viking lander site 1, taken sol 1. Viking
Picture 12A006/001; Fig. 2b. Same view (but different time of day) taken sol 302
showing changes on rocks and ground surface. Viking Picture 12Dl25/302.
Radiometric images (true color) were taken at the same time and sun angle each
Mars year for three consecutive years. Even though a soil sample had been
retrieved from the area between years one and two, color and pattern changes
independent of detritus from the sampling are seen over the years. See Figure
3.
FIG. 3. Radiometric Images over a three-year span at Viking site 1.
Lichen are called “the pioneers of vegetation” because they are frequently the
first organisms that appear on newly habitable rocks or soil, as exemplified by
their early appearance on volcanically-formed island of Surtsey. Capable of
surviving under severe conditions by undergoing cryptobiosis, they might survive
within debris ejected from Earth to Mars by meteoric impact. Since Viking,
lichen have been reported34 to survive under simulated Martian conditions and
the conditions of outer space. From time to time, lichen have been mentioned as
likely candidates for life on Mars. In this context, Dr. Mike Meyer, Director of
NASA’s Planetary Programs, exhibited35 the lichen-coated rock seen in Figure
3a. Figure 3b. shows “Delta Rock” imaged at Viking lander site 1.
Fig. 4a. Lichen-Coated Rock Fig. 4b. “Delta Rock” on Mars
As stated above, Viking’s imaging system was too coarse in its resolution to support
its six-channel spectral analysis that showed a striking coincidence between the
greenish spots on Martian rocks and green lichen on terrestrial rocks when viewed
under the JPL Viking Imaging System. The extraordinary capabilities of the
Curiosity camera systems offer an opportunity to resolve whether any such patches
found by the MSL are biological or not. Biological features, such as foliose or
crustose patterns, hyphae, cortex, medulla and cephalodia of lichen might readily be
identified by the hi res camera and the hand lens. Alien life form on Mars might
well exhibit features morphologically attributable to biology.
Visual and Chemical Proof of Life
As mentioned above, Curiosity can, in itself, completely corroborate the presence of
life on Mars. Should colored patches be seen on rocks, after their close visual
inspection, these patches can be targeted by the ChemCam. The spectroscopic
information obtained might support the visible evidence for life, making a “bulletproof,”
or Occam-resistant case for life.
The author conveyed these concepts of the camera “stealth” life detection
experiments to Dr. Michael Malin, developer and Principal Investigator of the
Curiosity camera systems, together with the paper cited above that first indicated
colored patches on Martian rocks. Dr. Malin said36 he would closely examine any
such spots at high resolution, but said mission operations prevented him from
returning to the same locations to look for temporal changes as I had further
suggested. The author believes, however, that, should SAM and ChemCam show
positive evidence for life, the Curiosity Mission will direct the MSL rover back to
the same spot at a date sufficient to show changes in color or pattern resulting from
growth or decay. This could constitute the greatest feat imaginable for the Curiosity
mission.
References:
1 http://msl-scicorner.jpl.nasa.gov, science goals, July 15, 2011.
2 Quoted in Discovery News, By Irene Klotz, Apr 16, 2012 07:51 AM ET.
3 Levin, G. V., "The Viking Labeled Release Experiment and Life on Mars," in Instruments,
Methods, and Missions for the Investigation of Extraterrestrial Microorganisms, Proc. SPIE, 3111,
146-161, 1997.
4 Levin, G. V., “Modern Myths of Mars,” Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology,
6309, 6309OC-1 -15, SPIE Proc., 2006.
5 Miller, J.D, P.A. Straat, and G.V. Levin, “Periodic Analysis of the Viking Lander Labeled Release
Experiment,” Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology, SPIE Proceedings, 4495, 96-
107, July 2001.
6 Miller, J. D., et al., “A Circadian Biosignature in the Labeled Release Data from Mars?,”
Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology, SPIE Proceedings, 5906, OC1-10, 2005.
7 Bianciardi, G., et al., “Complexity Analysis of the Viking Labeled Release Experiments,” Int'l J.
of Aeronautical & Space Sci., 13(1), 14-26, 2012.
8 Levin, G. V., “Chapter 9 Revisited,” The Microbes of Mars, Addendum to Mars: the Living
Planet, Barry DiGregorio, Kindle eBook, 2011.
9 Benner, S. et al., “The missing organic molecules on Mars,” PNAS, 97, 6, 2435-2430, 2000.
10 Navarro-González et al., “The limitations on organic detection in Mars-like soils by thermal
volatilization–gas chromatography–MS and their implications for the Viking
results,” PNAS, 103, 16089-16094, 2006.
11 Levin, G. V., P. A. Straat and W. D. Benton, “Color and Feature Changes at Mars Viking
LanderSite,” J. Theoret. Biol., 75, 381-390, 1978.
12 Op. Cit. 1.
13 Mahaffy1, P. R., et al., “Calibration of the Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer of the Sample
Analysis at Mars Instrument Suite,” Goddard Space Flight Center, Code 699, Greenbelt, MD
20771 42nd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, 2011.
14 Trauger, S. A., W. Webb and G. Siuzdak, “Peptide and Protein Analysis with Mass
Spectrometry,” Spectroscopy, IOS Press, 16, 15-28, 2002.
15 Op. Cit. 12.
16 Biemann, K., et al., "The Search for Organic Substances and Inorganic Volatile Compounds in
the Surface of Mars," J. Geophys. Res., 82, 4641, 1977.
17 Op. Cit. 9.
18Op. Cit 10.
19 Horowitz, N H., Hobby, G. L., Hubbard, J. S., “Viking on Mars: the carbon
assimilation experiments,” J. Geophys. Res. 82, 4659-4662, 1977.
20 Ibid.
21 Op.Cit. 3.
22Hubbard, J. S., J. P. Hardy, N. H. Horowitz, “Photocatalytic synthesis of organic
compounds from CO and H2O in a simulated Martian atmosphere,” Proc. Nat.
Acad. Sci.. 68, 574-578, 1971.
23 Hubbard, J. S., et al., “Photocatalytic synthesis of organic compounds from CO and water:
involvement of surfaces in the formation of products,” J. Mol. Evol. 14, 149-166, 1973.
24 Hubbard, J. S., “Laboratory simulations of the pyrolytic release experiment: an interim report.”
J. Mol. Evol. 14, 211-221, 1979.
25 Op. Cit 19.
26 Op Cit. 24
27 Ibid.
28 Op. Cit. 19.
29 Op. Cit. 22.
30 Ibid.
31 Ciesla, F. J., and Scott A. Sanford, “Organic Synthesis via Irradiation and Warming of Ice
Grains in the Solar Nebula,” Science, 452- 454, 2012.
32 Pavlov, A. A., et al., “Degradation of the Organic Molecules in the Shallow Subsurface of Mars
due to Irradiation by Cosmic Rays,”Geophys. Res. Lett., 39, 13, doi:10.1029/2012GL052166,
2012.
33 Levin, G. V., “Can Chirality Give Proof of Extinct or Extant Life?”, Astrobiology Science
Conference, AZ State University, April 26–29, 2010.
34 De la Torre, R., et al., “Survival of lichens and bacteria exposed to outer space
conditions. Results of the Lithopanspermia experiments,” doi:10.1016/j, 03.010, Icarus,
2010.
35 Astrobiology Magazine, Retrospections, Mars, posted Sept. 18, 2006.
36 Dr. Michael Malin, developer and Principal Investigator, Curiosity camera systems, Malin
Systems, Inc., private communication, Nov. 27, Nov. 28, 2011.
Acknowledgement:
The author would like to acknowledge the help of Dr. Jerry S. Hubbard, Co-Experimenter of the
Pyrolytic Release (PR) life detection experiment, for discussing the import of the PR with respect
to organic matter currently forming on Mars, in supplying unpublished PR data, and in reviewing this paper. Questions about Hubbard's methodology or findings can be addressed by contacting him directly, < jhubbard48@cfl.rr.com>.
####################################################################################

 

 
A conversation to share with the very diligent Guy Webster at JPL. You know the significance of these questions because of recent events and reports in Science.
 
 
Guy:

 

 

 

Will this second drill be used to calibrate, or recalibrate instruments which may have wandered during vacation? Or to confirm that the baseline remains the same?

 

----- Original Message -----

From: Webster, Guy W (1871)

To: Rick

Sent: Monday, May 06, 2013 12:41 PM

Subject: RE: why the silence

 

RAD was monitoring during the conjunction, but I haven't seen any report on the readings.

 

From: Rick [mailto:rick@eyerdam.com]
Sent:
Monday, May 06, 2013 9:27 AM

To: Webster, Guy W (1871)
Subject: Re: why the silence

 

Thanks for the reply. I was concerned about the solar activity while Curiosity was on vacation. Any interesting radiation readings?

 

----- Original Message -----

From: Webster, Guy W (1871)

To: Rick

Sent: Monday, May 06, 2013 12:13 PM

Subject: RE: why the silence

 

Rick,

We've had some short posts (bottom right of mission home page at http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/ and on Twitter and Facebook, reporting being back to work.  No surprises; all going as expected.  Also, as mentioned at the latest news briefing, the team plans to use Curiosity to drill into another rock in the current vicinity.

-- Guy

 

From: Rick [mailto:rick@eyerdam.com]
Sent:
Friday, May 03, 2013 1:26 PM
To: Webster, Guy W (1871)
Subject: why the silence

 

Hey Guy

 

Nothing on the web site about actual status of MSL mission Curiosity Rover reawakening, relative impact of recent solar activity.
What is happening now, what is happening next?

 

Is everyone asleep over there or on sequester?

 

Rick Eyerdam
Editor:
Marsnow.info
Author:
Fact and lore
Inside NASA's 60 year quest for life in space

 

 

David S. McKay's conundrum: the validity of the sample

 

by Rick Eyerdam

from the forthcoming book :
 
Fact or Lore
Inside NASA's 60 year quest for life in space
 

 

 

The late David McKay, former chief of astrobiology  (once exobiology) at NASA's Johnson Space Centre in Houston, proposed another alternative to retrieving a sample from Mars.

 
He insisted that at least one sample of Mars has already been returned to Earth for study. McKay promised that life would be confirmed in 2010 and the historic discovery would not be made on Mars, but here on Earth examining the famous Mars meteorite ALH 84001 with the very latest laboratory equipment. When MacKay first made the claim 14 years ago,  the President held a press conference.

 

 

            McKay was half correct. The ALH 84001 was scrutinized by even more precise microscopes and a herd of young scholars over 14 years. And by 2010 only McKay retained any thought that he had discovered very tiny nanobacteria in the Mars meteorite. The rest of science, including his scientist brother, had rejected McKay’s conclusions.

            Nowhere in that conversation about the ALH 84001 sample did anyone challenge the fundamental assertion. The scientists were sure it came from Mars because deep in a tiny fossil bubble in a similar but younger meteorite - EETA79001 - they placed a tap. Out came atmosphere virtually identical the air that the Viking landers recorded in 1976 on Mars. That proved to all that it was a meteorite from Mars.

            According to the scientists, “ALH84001 is one of twelve meteorites discovered on Earth thought to be from Mars. Most meteorites formed early in the history of the solar system, some 4.6 billion years ago. Eleven of the twelve Martian meteorites have ages less than 1.3 billion years, ALH84001 at 4.5 billion-years-old being the only exception. All twelve are igneous rocks crystallized from molten magma in a way which suggests they formed in a planetary-sized body, not an asteroid. They have similar oxygen isotope characteristics to each other and higher concentrations of ferric iron, water, and other volatiles than other meteorites. All twelve also show evidence of shock heating, presumably as a result of the impact which ejected them into space. Gas bubbles trapped in the one meteorite, EETA79001, have a composition which matches the current Martian atmosphere as measured by the Viking Landers, compelling evidence that this meteorite and by association the others, including ALH84001, came from Mars.”

            If the sample from the bubble in the meteorite was identical to contemporary atmosphere on Mars at the time of Viking in 1976, that means the Martian atmosphere has not fundamentally changed for at least a billion years. Now our landers suggest the Martian atmosphere changes slightly with the seasons but probably was lost to space long ago. If that is the case, how could the sample from the meteorite from 1 billion years ago be identical to the Viking sample from 1976?

            “Methane is clearly not an abundant gas at the Gale Crater site, if it is there at all. At this point in the mission we’re just excited to be searching for it,” said scientist Chris Webster in the release. “While we determine upper limits on low values, atmospheric variability in the Martian atmosphere could yet hold surprises for us.”

            One issue that must be resolved is whether decades were spent examining meteorites that scientists believe came from Mars only because one out of 12 contained a tiny sample of atmosphere that was virtually identical to the atmosphere of Mars as measured by Viking in 1976, as if the atmosphere of Mars never changed.

            One of three things can be learned about this latest whispered blunder. Either every assumption about ALH 84001 was incorrect or Mars has endured the same fundamental atmosphere for long enough for microbial life forms to become established and seek appropriate shelter, or the belief in the theory of chemical evolution must withstand yet another challenge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

STEALTH LIFE DETECTION INSTRUMENTS ABOARD CURIOSITY

Gilbert V. Levin

Adjunct Professor, Beyond Center, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Arizona

State University

Honorary Professor, Centre for Astrobiology, University of Buckingham (UK)

ABSTRACT

NASA has often stated (e.g. MSL Science Corner1) that it’s Mars Science

Laboratory (MSL), “Curiosity,” Mission to Mars carries no life detection

experiments. This is in keeping with NASA’s 36-year explicit ban on such, imposed

immediately after the 1976 Viking Mission to Mars. The space agency attributes the

ban to the “ambiguity” of that Mission’s Labeled Release (LR) life detection

experiment, fearing an adverse effect on the space program should a similar

“inconclusive” result come from a new robotic quest. Yet, despite the NASA ban,

this author, the Viking LR Experimenter, contends there are “stealth life detection

instruments” aboard Curiosity. These are life detection instruments in the sense

that they can free the Viking LR from the pall of ambiguity that has held it prisoner

so long. Curiosity’s stealth instruments are those seeking organic compounds, and

the mission’s high-resolution camera system. Results from any or all of these

devices, coupled with the Viking LR data, can confirm the LR’s life detection claim.

In one possible scenario, Curiosity can, of itself, completely corroborate the finding

of life on Mars. MSL has just successfully landed on Mars. Hopefully, its stealth

confirmations of life will be reported shortly.

Introduction

The spacecraft Curiosity has successfully landed on Mars. This is NASA’s largest

planetary effort. However, while the search for life beyond the Earth remains a

prime priority of NASA, Curiosity has no life detection experiment. In the 36 years

since Viking’s landing, July 20, 1976, NASA has not sent another life detection

experiment to Mars; indeed, life detection experiments have been specifically

prohibited. The plan, instead, has been to examine a sample of Martian regolith

brought to Earth, an event probably decades in the future. Despite this long

deferment in its quest, NASA’s Director of the Mars Exploration Program, Doug

McCuistion, recently said2, "Seeking the signs of life still remains the ultimate

goal." That goal may be nearer at hand than NASA indicates. In the author’s

opinion, highly sensitive instruments aboard Curiosity have the capability of

confirming that the Viking Labeled Release experiment did detect living

microorganisms on the surface of Mars.

 

Background

The LR’s claim3 to life is based on responses obtained when a 14C labeled nutrient

solution was applied to samples of Martian soil. Strong evolution of 14C-labeled

gas(es) occurred immediately following injection of the nutrient, and continued in a

pattern, in both amplitude and kinetics, very similar to that obtained from many LR

tests of terrestrial soils. On Mars, as on Earth, confirmation of the biological nature

of a positive result was sought by heating a duplicate sample to a temperature to kill

or impair microorganisms, but not high enough to destroy soil chemicals that might

have reacted with the nutrient compounds. All such control tests on Mars indicated

microorganisms, not chemicals, as the source of the active responses4. Table 1

summarizes the Martian results.

 

TABLE 1

SUMMARY OF VIKING LR MARS RESULTS

Positive responses were obtained from soils at both Viking landers

Soil* heated to 160° C for three hours produced nil response

Soil** heated to 51° C for three hours prior to testing produced several small sporadic

peaks (5%-10% of positive response) each of which was further reduced by

approximately 90% prior to the start of the next peak

Soil** heated to 46° C for 3 hours produced kinetics similar to positive response, but

70% reduced in amplitude

Soils maintained two and three months, respectively, in the VL1 and VL2 soil

distribution boxes, in dark, at approximately 7-10° C, under ambient Mars atmosphere,

pressure and humidity, produced nil responses

Soil** protected from UV by overlying rock produced typical active response

Upon second injection of nutrient, approximately 20% of gas already evolved was reabsorbed into the soil, and gradually re-evolved over period of two months, unusual for

most LR tests on Earth, but similar to a test of an Antarctic soil

*Run at VL1 only.

** Run at VL2 only.



Subsequently, independent approaches5, 6 indicated a circadian rhythm in the LR

data, thereby supporting a biological conclusion. Most recently, an entirely new

approach7, based on complexity analysis of the LR data, produced a result that

strongly favored biology.

Over the years since Viking, many theories have attempted to explain away the

biological nature of the LR. No experiment or theory has survived scientific

scrutiny, nor has any experiment been able to duplicate the LR responses and

controls without using living organisms8. Principal among the arguments against

life has been the failure of the Viking organic analysis instrument (GCMS – gas

chromatograph-mass spectrometer) to detect any organic matter in the same soil

samples from which the LR got its life responses. Although researchers9, 10 have

demonstrated deficiencies in the Viking GCMS that impugn its negative result, the

presumed lack of organics remains the only substantial barrier to general

acceptance of the LR claim.

In an early attempt to resolve the issue raised by the Viking LR, the author

examined all lander images taken at Viking sites 1 and 2. He reported11 finding

colored patches, ranging from ochre to yellow to greenish, on some of the

foreground rocks. Six channel spectral analyses of the patches found that their

color, hue and intensity closely matched those same parameters of terrestrial lichen

as analyzed by the Viking Lander Imaging System. However, resolution of the

Viking images was too coarse to support any claim to life based on optical spectral

analysis alone.

 

Curiosity’s Stealth Life Detection Instruments

While none of the extensive array of Curiosity’s Mars Surface Laboratory (MSL)12

can detect life, several of its instruments can produce results that could confirm the

Viking LR’s claim to have discovered Martian endogenous life. Coupled with the

Viking LR data, they, thus, may be termed life detection instruments. They are

shown in Table 2.

Table 2. Curiosity’s “Stealth” Life Detection Instruments

Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) has the following components that can execute lifepertinent analyses:

Oven – this can heat samples to 1,000o C. The vapors and gases produced

can be sent to: Quadrupole Mass Spec (QMS)13. The QMS can identify organic

compounds obtained from the soil. It can also analyze the Martian

atmosphere for organic compounds. It is sensitive to the sub ppb

level. The stated range of molecular weights is 2 – 235 Da. SAM will

likely use techniques14 that process data to identify much heavier

organic molecules, such as peptides and proteins. The QMS can also

determine the isotope ratios of C, H and O and their respective

abundances.

Gas Chromatograph (GC)15. The GC can identify specific gases

separated by the QMS.

Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS). The TLS can analyze atmospheric

components, and can determine isotopic ratios of atom constituents of CO2

and CH4, which ratios, it has been proposed, can distinguish between

biological and chemical origin of these gases. However, this could not

determine whether any biological indication came from living or dead

organisms.

Cameras – a system of cameras is carried aboard.

MastCam. Two cameras are mast mounted. They take images in true

color, and have auto focus ranging from 2 m to infinity. They can

take high definition videos. They are equipped with a Hand Lens

System, also imaging in true color, with resolutions up to 14.5 um per

pixel. Focus of the Hand Lens System is from mm distances to

infinity. In addition, there is a Microscopic Probe, capable of color

imaging with a spatial resolution down to three pixels (um).

ChemCam. This is a truly novel and potent innovation, termed

“laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy.” A laser gun is fired at a

selected target. The action vaporizes some of the rock material. The

vapor produced is then remotely and instantly analyzed in its visible,

near-UV and near-IR spectra. The instrument has a 20 cm field of

view, within which it can resolve a target as little as one mm in

diameter at a distance of 10 m.

The Case for Organic Matter on Mars.

 

Despite the failure to find any organic compounds in the surface material or

atmosphere of Mars by the only instrument to report on such, the Viking GCMS16,

circumstantial evidence overwhelmingly indicates both the deposition and formation

of organic matter on Mars. Further, the Viking GCMS has been found wanting in

that it did not pyrolyze its soils samples at a sufficiently high enough temperature17,

and that the presence of perchlorates in the soil samples may have obliterated any

trace of organics.18 It seems certain that organic matter was deposited on Mars, as

it was on Earth, by comets, meteors and meteorites, impacting densely in the years

soon after formation of the planets, and, at greatly reduced frequency, continuing to

this day. Also, Mars, again like Earth, must be receiving thousands of tons or

organic matter deposited annually by interplanetary dust particles.

In addition to receiving organic matter from space, there is strong evidence that

Mars manufactures its own. This evidence comes from the Viking Pyrolytic Release

(PR) 19 life detection experiment. The PR sought to measure carbon assimilation by

living microorganisms by exposing Martian soil to simulated Martian sunlight in a

chamber containing the 7 mb Martian atmosphere to which its CO 2 and CO was

supplemented with 2.5 mb of 14CO2 and 14 CO in a ratio of 15:1, respectively. In

the analysis phase, a statistically significant level of radioactivity in the soil organics

would be evidence of assimilation. On Mars, the PR yielded tantalizing results that

for a short time were considered presumptive evidence of biology. However, the low

absolute value of the signal, while significant over the radioactive background, and

the still-positive result of the heated (“sterilized”) control supported a non-biological

interpretation.20

The paper21 claiming that the LR detected life also showed that the Viking Pyrolytic

Release (PR) experiment had discovered that organic material was actually being

photochemically synthesized on current Mars. This might be thought of as a Miller-

Urey experiment on the endogenous Martian atmosphere. Not only did organic

compounds form, they survived in the soil sample for the five-sol experimental cycle.

This survival rebutted the oft-cited claim that the surface of Mars was so oxidative

that it would destroy any life and organic matter, thereby explaining the generally

perceived absence of both. Accumulation of organic matter under Martian ambient

conditions was demonstrated within the PR instrument. This production of

organics on Mars should have been anticipated from the pre-Viking work22, 23 .

The on-going production of organic matter on Mars was again demonstrated in

post-Viking studies24, but, strangely, was not appreciated as the major finding it

was, confirming the indigenous formation and survival of organic matter on Mars.

While stating25 that, “The results are startling,” the PR experimenters then

minimized their finding by saying, “If organic Matter is being synthesized on Mars,

it does not accumulate above the sensitivity threshold of the GCMS.” They, thus,

succumbed to the reputed sensitivity of the Viking GCMS, ignoring the survival of

the organic matter formed in the PR, which indicates the organics must continue to

accumulate well beyond that level. In fact, the PR results should have been

immediately recognized as a strong indication that the Viking GCMS was not

working properly.

Last year, the author called this matter to the attention of Dr. Jerry S. Hubbard,

Co-Experimenter on the Viking PR. Dr. Hubbard then went into his files and

produced unpublished data from his laboratory work on the production of

photocatalytically synthesized organic compounds from simulated Martian

atmosphere under simulated sunlight. Formic acid, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and

glycolic acid comprised about 85% of the 14C-products, with the remainder being

unidentified compounds. Hubbard’s previously unpublished data presented in

Table 3 show the yields of photocatalytic synthesis products on three model Mars

soils irradiated with simulated Mars sunlight. Low levels of abiotic synthesis were

also detected in post-Viking studies26 with the standard PR removal of UV

frequencies below 320 nm. Hubbard27 calculated the carbon assimilated in three

light, dry incubations of the Martian Chryse soils28. The Viking data correspond to

10.5, 2.9 and 3.6 pmoles of organic carbon, if produced from 14CO, or 37.9, 10.7 and

12.3 pmoles, if produced from 14CO2.

In the Viking PR instrument, an optical filter was installed which removed

wavelengths ≤ 320 nm from the light source The filtered light was much less

effective in driving the abiotic synthesis of simple organics, thus reducing the

possibility of a false positive result. Accordingly, the light in the PR instrument on

Mars was not a true simulation of sunlight there. The new data in Table 3 show

that, when the light used simulates the Martian flux, some 3 orders of magnitude

more organic matter is formed over the amount formed in the UV-protected PR on

Mars.

However, it is important to point out that the organic compounds produced in the

PR were of relatively small molecular size. Hence, they provide no direct evidence

for biology-sized molecules on Mars. Nonetheless, these repetitive and consistent

results raise a strong challenge to the negative findings of the Viking GCMS. Added

to the previously stated sources of organic matter on Mars, they leave little doubt

that MSL will find organic compounds in the soil of Mars.

TABLE 3

Photocatalytic Synthesis of Organics on Model Mars Soils using

Simulated Mars Sunlight

Samplea Irradiationb nmoles of carbon recovered

Gas phasec Soil extractd

_____________________ ___________

14CO 14 CO2 14C-organics

Volcanic ash shale 7 day 13.5 17.3 117.0

Mars analog soil 7 day 93.9 32.0 10.8

Montmorillonite 3 day 106.9 31.9 13.4

a Samples(300 mg) in 5.5 ml quartz tubes were predried at 145oC for 16 hr and then attached to a vacuum/gas mixing apparatus while still hot. Sample tubes were filled with CO2 and evacuated five times.

bThe evacuated tubes were filled with 320 torr of 12 CO2 and 0.5 torr of 14 CO(145 nmoles) and then mounted horizontally on a wheel which rotated at 2 rpm. With the light path perpendicular to the axis of rotation samples were irradiated with a high pressure xenon source filtered through 2.5 mm

Vycor glass, which removed UV < 220 nm, with the sample incident light approximating the flux on the Martian surface. The maximum and average intensities reaching the samples were 30 and 17 mW·cm-2.

c Gases were separated and their radioactivity quantified29.

D Samples were extracted in boiling water and radioactivity quantified30.

Credit: Dr. Jerry S. Hubbard.

The most rapid and efficient conversion occurred on the volcanic ash shale where

81% of the 145 nmoles of available carbon in CO and 87% of the carbon in the

consumed CO were recovered in the organic products in the soil. With the Mars

analog soil the conversion values relative to the available CO and the consumed

CO were 7.4% and 21%, respectively. For montmorillonite after the 3-day

irradiation, 35% of the carbon in the depleted CO was recovered in the soil

organics. Hubbard states, “Any one of the three diverse model soils would be an

effective substratum for the abiotic synthesis on Mars.” Beyond this Mars-specific

evidence, a very recent paper31 makes the case for the formation of complex organic

matter throughout all planetary systems, including our solar system. Thus, the

stage seems set for Curiosity to find even complex organics on Mars near or on the

surface. Another recent paper32 estimates that complex organic molecules as little

as only several cm beneath the surface of Mars can survive cosmic radiation, thus

being readily available for detection by Curiosity’s MSL.

Biological Relevance of SAM’s Findings. SAM’s QMS, GC and TLS have the

ability to detect organic compounds that would be present in soils even sparsely

populated with microorganisms, well within the reach of the LR’s sensitivity (some

10 cells). Moreover, with the inductive analytical technique cited above for the

QMS, any gases detected could be established as having come from specific peptides,

proteins or other large molecules of biological relevance. The GC and the TLS can

also make such determinations. Furthermore, the isotopic analysis and ratios of the

isotopes of carbon and hydrogen in any methane found can be indicative of a

chemical or biological origin of the methane. Add the extraordinary power of the

ChemCam, with its broad spectroscopic capabilities, and it is apparent that the

MLS can finally settle the long-standing issue of whether or not there are organics

on Mars. It can also establish whether there are organic compounds present that

are commonly associated with biological activity on Earth. In themselves, as NASA

has said, such findings would not be proof of life.

Complex organic molecules have often been stated to be “biomarkers,” meaning

that their detection would be conclusive evidence for life. However, it is likely that,

were even DNA found, such “evidence” would be quickly relegated to the dust bin of

doubt by Occam’s razor.33 All such evidence will be deemed as more likely to

have occurred through abiotic happenstance rather than having required the

development of a living entity to produce it.

The unintended and highly significant outcome of Curiosity’s search would be its

confirmation of complex organic compounds on Mars. This finding would remove

the last, lingering support from the dwindling, but remaining consensus that the

Viking LR results are not proof of life. The LR results are not a snapshot, as are

the “biomarkers,” but are long-term, continuous evidence of metabolism, as

confirmed by metabolism-killing controls. Objectors would be driven to the

sometimes proposed concept that chemistry on Mars differs from chemistry on

Earth, that some mysterious reaction, not yet achievable in laboratories, is

mimicking life. This would be a difficult case to make before competent chemists

and physicists.

Visual Evidence for Life.

The radiometric (“true color”) image of the Viking 1 landing site, Figure 1, shows

many interesting features and colors.

Fig. 1. Radiometric (“true color”) Viking Image 12A006/001, Viking 1 Lander

Site.

Examination of all Viking Lander images showed not only colored (ochre to yellowto-

yellow-green to green) patches on some of the foreground rocks, but seasonal

changes in the colors and patterns of the same objects when viewed under the same

conditions, as seen, for example, in Figures 2a and 2b.

Fig. 2a. Fig 2b.

Fig. 2a. Radiometric color picture of Viking lander site 1, taken sol 1. Viking

Picture 12A006/001; Fig. 2b. Same view (but different time of day) taken sol 302

showing changes on rocks and ground surface. Viking Picture 12Dl25/302.

Radiometric images (true color) were taken at the same time and sun angle each

Mars year for three consecutive years. Even though a soil sample had been

retrieved from the area between years one and two, color and pattern changes

independent of detritus from the sampling are seen over the years. See Figure

3.

FIG. 3. Radiometric Images over a three-year span at Viking site 1.

Lichen are called “the pioneers of vegetation” because they are frequently the

first organisms that appear on newly habitable rocks or soil, as exemplified by

their early appearance on volcanically-formed island of Surtsey. Capable of

surviving under severe conditions by undergoing cryptobiosis, they might survive

within debris ejected from Earth to Mars by meteoric impact. Since Viking,

lichen have been reported34 to survive under simulated Martian conditions and

the conditions of outer space. From time to time, lichen have been mentioned as

likely candidates for life on Mars. In this context, Dr. Mike Meyer, Director of

NASA’s Planetary Programs, exhibited35 the lichen-coated rock seen in Figure

3a. Figure 3b. shows “Delta Rock” imaged at Viking lander site 1.

Fig. 4a. Lichen-Coated Rock Fig. 4b. “Delta Rock” on Mars

As stated above, Viking’s imaging system was too coarse in its resolution to support

its six-channel spectral analysis that showed a striking coincidence between the

greenish spots on Martian rocks and green lichen on terrestrial rocks when viewed

under the JPL Viking Imaging System. The extraordinary capabilities of the

Curiosity camera systems offer an opportunity to resolve whether any such patches

found by the MSL are biological or not. Biological features, such as foliose or

crustose patterns, hyphae, cortex, medulla and cephalodia of lichen might readily be

identified by the hi res camera and the hand lens. Alien life form on Mars might

well exhibit features morphologically attributable to biology.

Visual and Chemical Proof of Life

As mentioned above, Curiosity can, in itself, completely corroborate the presence of

life on Mars. Should colored patches be seen on rocks, after their close visual

inspection, these patches can be targeted by the ChemCam. The spectroscopic

information obtained might support the visible evidence for life, making a “bulletproof,”

or Occam-resistant case for life.

The author conveyed these concepts of the camera “stealth” life detection

experiments to Dr. Michael Malin, developer and Principal Investigator of the

Curiosity camera systems, together with the paper cited above that first indicated

colored patches on Martian rocks. Dr. Malin said36 he would closely examine any

such spots at high resolution, but said mission operations prevented him from

returning to the same locations to look for temporal changes as I had further

suggested. The author believes, however, that, should SAM and ChemCam show

positive evidence for life, the Curiosity Mission will direct the MSL rover back to

the same spot at a date sufficient to show changes in color or pattern resulting from

growth or decay. This could constitute the greatest feat imaginable for the Curiosity

mission.

References:

1 http://msl-scicorner.jpl.nasa.gov, science goals, July 15, 2011.

2 Quoted in Discovery News, By Irene Klotz, Apr 16, 2012 07:51 AM ET.

3 Levin, G. V., "The Viking Labeled Release Experiment and Life on Mars," in Instruments,

Methods, and Missions for the Investigation of Extraterrestrial Microorganisms, Proc. SPIE, 3111,

146-161, 1997.

4 Levin, G. V., “Modern Myths of Mars,” Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology,

6309, 6309OC-1 -15, SPIE Proc., 2006.

5 Miller, J.D, P.A. Straat, and G.V. Levin, “Periodic Analysis of the Viking Lander Labeled Release

Experiment,” Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology, SPIE Proceedings, 4495, 96-

107, July 2001.

6 Miller, J. D., et al., “A Circadian Biosignature in the Labeled Release Data from Mars?,”

Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology, SPIE Proceedings, 5906, OC1-10, 2005.

7 Bianciardi, G., et al., “Complexity Analysis of the Viking Labeled Release Experiments,” Int'l J.

of Aeronautical & Space Sci., 13(1), 14-26, 2012.

8 Levin, G. V., “Chapter 9 Revisited,” The Microbes of Mars, Addendum to Mars: the Living

Planet, Barry DiGregorio, Kindle eBook, 2011.

9 Benner, S. et al., “The missing organic molecules on Mars,” PNAS, 97, 6, 2435-2430, 2000.

10 Navarro-González et al., “The limitations on organic detection in Mars-like soils by thermal

volatilization–gas chromatography–MS and their implications for the Viking

results,” PNAS, 103, 16089-16094, 2006.

11 Levin, G. V., P. A. Straat and W. D. Benton, “Color and Feature Changes at Mars Viking

LanderSite,” J. Theoret. Biol., 75, 381-390, 1978.

12 Op. Cit. 1.

13 Mahaffy1, P. R., et al., “Calibration of the Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer of the Sample

Analysis at Mars Instrument Suite,” Goddard Space Flight Center, Code 699, Greenbelt, MD

20771 42nd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, 2011.

14 Trauger, S. A., W. Webb and G. Siuzdak, “Peptide and Protein Analysis with Mass

Spectrometry,” Spectroscopy, IOS Press, 16, 15-28, 2002.

15 Op. Cit. 12.

16 Biemann, K., et al., "The Search for Organic Substances and Inorganic Volatile Compounds in

the Surface of Mars," J. Geophys. Res., 82, 4641, 1977.

17 Op. Cit. 9.

18Op. Cit 10.

19 Horowitz, N H., Hobby, G. L., Hubbard, J. S., “Viking on Mars: the carbon

assimilation experiments,” J. Geophys. Res. 82, 4659-4662, 1977.

20 Ibid.

21 Op.Cit. 3.

22Hubbard, J. S., J. P. Hardy, N. H. Horowitz, “Photocatalytic synthesis of organic

compounds from CO and H2O in a simulated Martian atmosphere,” Proc. Nat.

Acad. Sci.. 68, 574-578, 1971.

23 Hubbard, J. S., et al., “Photocatalytic synthesis of organic compounds from CO and water:

involvement of surfaces in the formation of products,” J. Mol. Evol. 14, 149-166, 1973.

24 Hubbard, J. S., “Laboratory simulations of the pyrolytic release experiment: an interim report.”

J. Mol. Evol. 14, 211-221, 1979.

25 Op. Cit 19.

26 Op Cit. 24

27 Ibid.

28 Op. Cit. 19.

29 Op. Cit. 22.

30 Ibid.

31 Ciesla, F. J., and Scott A. Sanford, “Organic Synthesis via Irradiation and Warming of Ice

Grains in the Solar Nebula,” Science, 452- 454, 2012.

32 Pavlov, A. A., et al., “Degradation of the Organic Molecules in the Shallow Subsurface of Mars

due to Irradiation by Cosmic Rays,”Geophys. Res. Lett., 39, 13, doi:10.1029/2012GL052166,

2012.

33 Levin, G. V., “Can Chirality Give Proof of Extinct or Extant Life?”, Astrobiology Science

Conference, AZ State University, April 26–29, 2010.

34 De la Torre, R., et al., “Survival of lichens and bacteria exposed to outer space

conditions. Results of the Lithopanspermia experiments,” doi:10.1016/j, 03.010, Icarus,

2010.

35 Astrobiology Magazine, Retrospections, Mars, posted Sept. 18, 2006.

36 Dr. Michael Malin, developer and Principal Investigator, Curiosity camera systems, Malin

Systems, Inc., private communication, Nov. 27, Nov. 28, 2011.

Acknowledgement:

The author would like to acknowledge the help of Dr. Jerry S. Hubbard, Co-Experimenter of the

Pyrolytic Release (PR) life detection experiment, for discussing the import of the PR with respect

to organic matter currently forming on Mars, in supplying unpublished PR data, and in reviewing this paper. Questions about Hubbard's methodology or findings can be addressed by contacting him directly, < jhubbard48@cfl.rr.com>.

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