What NASA Won’t Tell You About The Mars Rover Curiosity

It’s looking for life on Mars.

What’s my evidence?

The following sentence from science writer Marc Kaufman’s excellent book, First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth (Simon & Schuster, 2011, 42-43):

The next NASA mission to search for Martian organics, the Mars Science Laboratory [Curiosity], will launch in 2011 and has a similar if more highly evolved GCMS that can test for organics (and unofficially for signs of life) using solvents rather than heat.

Why unofficially? Because NASA does not want to announce a life search mission in the way it did in 1977 with the Viking missions, and come up empty handed. Also, the exact definition of life is disputed in scientific circles. Thus it’s safest to be officially euphemistic about the search for life and to tone the rhetoric down several notches.

But the devices aboard the science lab are looking for life on Mars. There’s no need, if you’re not working for NASA, to be coy or Orwellian about this.

GCMS, by the way, stands for “gas chromatograph mass spectrometer,” which is a fancy way of saying that there is a device on Curiosity that leaches organics from soil and identifies them. It is similar to the device on the 1970s Viking mission, which was explicitly promoted as a search for life mission, but the Curiosity device is designed to leach organics from soil by a chemical process instead of a heating process. The heating process was subject to dispute on the Viking missions, so now NASA is going to check for organics without heating the soil. If organics are found in the soil on this more sophisticated check, then the parts of the Viking mission that seemed to suggest life on Mars, but were discounted because of lack of evidence of organics in the soil, are considerably strengthened.

Here’s Gilbert Levin talking about his “labelled release” (LR) experiment, which, during the Viking missions, seemed to return a positive result for life on Mars.


And here’s something more recent (Discovery News, April 12, 2012) concerning the Viking LR experiments:

New analysis of 36-year-old data [from the Viking missions], resuscitated from printouts, shows NASA found life on Mars, an international team of mathematicians and scientists conclude in a paper published this week.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to imagine that NASA’s most recent mission won’t find evidence of life on Mars this time around, which is perhaps why NASA is reluctant to be too explicit about what it’s there for. What a downer if Curiosity doesn’t find life.

My question is this: is there anything on Curiosity that specifically updates or attempts to replicate the Viking LR experiments?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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