Life on Mars?

| 17 Comments

Here’s a provocative exclusive from Space.com:

Exclusive: NASA Researchers Claim Evidence of Present Life on Mars.

A pair of NASA scientists told a group of space officials at a private meeting here Sunday that they have found strong evidence that life may exist today on Mars, hidden away in caves and sustained by pockets of water.

The scientists, Carol Stoker and Larry Lemke of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, told the group that they have submitted their findings to the journal Nature for publication in May, and their paper currently is being peer reviewed.

What Stoker and Lemke have found, according to several attendees of the private meeting, is not direct proof of life on Mars, but methane signatures and other signs of possible biological activity remarkably similar to those recently discovered in caves here on Earth.

If confirmed, this could have some serious ramifications for evolution on the early Earth. Did living things go from Mars to Earth or vice versa? Are we talking about multiple origin of life events? Interesting stuff. I guess we’ll have to live with a mere teaser for now.

17 Comments

Leaking their findings before they clear peer review earns them a few ‘cold fusion points’.

Frankly, if I had been at that meeting I might have responded to the scientists’ claims with a “methane signature” of my own.

Talk about reaching. Scientists should speculate about life on Mars to their heart’s content but some of the statements in that news release can’t possibly be justified by the sort of data obtained by the Martian probe.

My initial reaction is “Wow!” But releasing such information before proper vetting by skeptics sets my antenna all aquiver and raises my skepticism a trifle.

Without more details about the nature of the private meeting, the terms “leaking” and “releasing” are not necessarily fair, at least with regards to the two researchers.

It is standard practice in many statistical agencies to give briefings/talks/seminars within the agency about important developments in one’s research whether or not the results have been reviewed outside the agency. I do not know whether this is also true for NASA, although I suspect it is, especially for results that are likely to be newsworthy when formally released.

Hmmmmmmmmm. The words yeah and right spring quickly to mind.

As to the question of letting scientific findings out before they’ve passed peer review, have a look at www.arxiv.org and see if that’s not standard practice, at least in some fields. Of course, this may not be analagous, given the potential importance of the discovery. Nonetheless, I’d concur that ‘leaked’ doesn’t seem quite right in this context.

I am sure I don’t have to remind too many regulars here about “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence…” Even so, the track record of such claims makes the intelligent design folks seem reliable. ;-) And then there is the problem is that researchers (and almost anyone one else with a curious mind) wants to find it.

Methane is a very simple substance. I would want something much better than what I just read. I will have a hard time accepting any argument like we can’t imagine how it could have formed without the presence of life.

Of course I would just love to be wrong in my extreme skepticism. Please prove me wrong. But if I was forced to put down a bet I would say that it is yet another false alarm.

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Essentially, methane is produced by volcanism or organic waste-products. Since volclanism “appears” to be dormant on Mars (for many, many years) the possiblity that life is creating the methane becomes more attractive.

And, the methane appears to be replenishing itself. Mars cannot hold methane for very long (300-2000 years), therefore, if it was due to a cometary impact for example, only recent incidents need apply.

Nevertheless, peer-review is essential and there are at least 2 teams making an announcement. Should be a fun debate.

Stories from last year:

http://www.cnn.com/2004/TECH/space/[…]e/index.html http://www.space.com/scienceastrono[…]_040920.html

[Faked message from “Evolving Apeman” removed. - WRE]

NASA and similar institutions have already turned to ‘publication by press-conference’ several times, and this one is not so much different. I would assume this is because frequent high-profile appearance in the media seems more important to public funding then well researched and reviewed publications. Sure, finding another biosystem would be great, but given the underwhelming history of similar statements like the meteorite bacteria we should not hold our breaths - despite the methane.

“If only we could find another instance of evolution then maybe the masses would buy into our religi..I mean science.”

For someone that’s posting after an almost unanimous round of complete skepticism and disbelief, you sure are incredibly tone deaf. You couldn’t have found a more nonsensical place to post your silly insult.

This sort of thing happens in physics all the time, especially when two groups/labs are competing for the same discovery. More than once, however, an announcement of a “new particle” had to be retracted.

Fyi to plunge and anyone else who might be confused (I know I was):

Post 16621 was posted by a troll using my alias.

I think I’m like most of us here in wishing for new (and hopefully very different) life to be found on Mars. But all I see here so far is more of the same wishful thinking. Which is a fun pastime, to be sure. Probably a lot of us read science fiction and enjoy really cool aliens, too.

But realistically, I think the best we can expect is that indications have been found that “might not be incompatible with some forms of life.” Which isn’t saying much.

jonas Wrote:

NASA and similar institutions have already turned to ‘publication by press-conference’ several times, and this one is not so much different. I would assume this is because frequent high-profile appearance in the media seems more important to public funding then well researched and reviewed publications.

This was not released at a press conference nor at a high-profile appearance in the media. This was apparently “leaked” by the lead scientists (not by NASA itself) during a seminar or conference talk. It’s perfectly common for scientists to talk about their work before it’s published in these kinds of settings, though people are understandably reluctant to share controversial results or stuff that might be scooped. The fact that they “leaked” it could mean that they’re seeking attention. But then again it might mean that they’re highly confident in what they’ve discovered.

As for peer-review, the Space.com article mentions that the research has been submitted to Nature. If it checks out, it’ll appear in the May issue, and we can be confident that it’s high quality work.

Let me remind everyone that this is a teaser. Anyone drawing conclusions either way is jumping the gun. It could be rock solid or it could be garbage, we just don’t know. But it would be very exciting if true.

CNN had a short segment this morning in which their resident astronomy/physics guy said that the methane signatures they’ve found correlate with underground reseviors of liquid water that are believed to exist. That would seem fairly strong evidence to me, but again, we’ll just have to wait for the actual paper to come out.

This story has turned out to have been a fabrication.

Dr. Phil Plait Wrote:

Basically, the story is, now get this, a fabrication. Yes, you read that correctly.

The two researchers, Carol Stoker and Larry Lemke, do think they may have evidence for methane in Mars’ atmosphere. Methane cannot last long without being replenished, and it’s not easy to replenish it. There are non-biological ways (for example, sunlight + C02 plus water, which can be found on Mars), but life is the easiest way we know of. As the story went, they had a secret meeting – with whom, we don’t know – and they were discussing releasing this bombshell to either coincide or predate an article submitted to Nature, a premier scientific journal.

Carol Stoker Wrote:

A story has appeared in Space.com which quotes us inaccurately and without permission. The story is based on hearsay and is factually incorrect.

Here are the facts:

1. On Sunday night we were attending a private party of space exploration enthusiasts in which there was a discussion about the possible meaning of the results from recent Mars missions. We engaged in the discussion and expressed thoughts and opinions as individual scientists on our own time and did not represent ourselves as speaking for NASA.

2. No one at the party identified themselves as a reporter, and in fact no reporters were present. This article is based on hearsay about what somebody at the party thought they heard us say. We think this represents extremely poor journalistic standards.

3. No Nature paper has been submitted with Rio Tinto results. This claim is simply wrong and we did not make this claim. The MARTE project has several papers in preparation that describe the work we are doing at Rio Tinto and the first results of that work, but nothing has been submitted yet. Preliminary results have been published in abstract form at various scientific meetings. If you want to see what the MARTE team has actually said about results from Rio Tinto drilling and its relevance to life on Mars, go to www.marteproject.com and click on publications. All our REAL publications are posted there.

4. The work at Rio Tinto is relevant to finding life in a subsurface terrestrial environment and can’t be used to infer anything about life on Mars, directly. The Rio Tinto work by its very nature can’t tell us if there is life on Mars, but certainly helps formulate the strategy for how to search for life on Mars. One approach to searching for extant life on Mars is by drilling. Partly for this reason, the MARTE project was selected for funding by NASA’s ASTEP program, out of the Science Mission Directorate and is a joint project between NASA and Spain’s Center for Astrobiology.

Source

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The useful lie.

WASHINGTON - NASA on Friday issued an unusual denial of a report that its researchers saw strong evidence for life’s existence on present-day Mars, based in part on atmospheric methane readings. Other scientists involved in Mars research said the jury was still out on the meaning of Martian methane, but they agreed that the preliminary findings were well worth a follow-up.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6994667/

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This page contains a single entry by Steve Reuland published on February 16, 2005 4:10 PM.

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