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Who discovered organics on Mars?

More than three decades after NASA's Viking landers found no evidence for organic materials on Mars, a new study has revealed that Viking did, in fact, discover organics.

india Updated: Jan 05, 2011 17:13 IST


Using Mars-like soil taken from Atacama Desert, a new experiment has confirmed that Mars has organics, and Viking found them.

More than three decades after NASA's Viking landers found no evidence for organic materials on Mars, the new study has suggested that Viking did, in fact, hit pay dirt.

The study was prompted by the August 2008 discovery of powerful oxygen-busting compounds known as perchlorates at the landing site of another Mars probe called Phoenix.

Scientists repeated a key Viking experiment using perchlorate-enhanced soil from Chile's Atacama Desert, which is considered one of the driest and most Mars-like places on Earth, and found telltale fingerprints of combusted organics-the same chemicals Viking scientists dismissed as contaminants from Earth.

"Contrary to 30 years of perceived wisdom, Viking did detect organic materials on Mars," Discovery News quoted Christopher McKay of NASA''s Ames Research Center in California, as saying.

"If the Viking team had said ''Well, maybe there's perchlorate in the soil,'' everybody would have said they're crazy-why would there be perchlorates in the soil? It was only by having it pushed on us by Phoenix where we had no alternative but to conclude that there was perchlorate in the soil ... Once you realize it's there, then everything makes sense," added McKay.

The Viking team's verdict that Mars lacked organics was the lynchpin argument against another Viking experiment that looked for signs of microbial life. In the experiment, a bit of nutrient-laced water was added to a sample of Martian soil.

The air above the soil was then monitored for signs that the nutrients had been metabolized. The instrument detected tracer gases the first time the experiment was done, but subsequent runs did not. The results were considered inconclusive and remain contested.

New evidence for organics on Mars does not mean Viking found life, cautions McKay.

"Finding organics is not evidence of life or evidence of past life. It''s just evidence for organics," he said.

NASA now plans to launch a follow-up mission to look for organics on Mars.

The research appeared in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

First Published: Jan 05, 2011 16:44 IST

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