Well, in the latest episode of The Skeptics Guide, I spoke about all of the news that concerned Mars in 2010, and that I would be laying off in paying too much attention to Mars in 2011. This was because I had predicted in early 2010 that there would be official word coming that life exists on Mars. Although there were numerous reports in 2010 that could be interpreted to to support my prediction (albeit some were reported incorrectly and others were just the claims of Richard Hoagland-like people who are, literally, “out there”) I came to realize that the entire human obsession with Mars almost hopelessly clouds the issue and blurs the lines between real science and pseudoscience. So I am making a conscious decision to stay away from the influences of Mars in 2011 and not get caught up in all the “hype” concerning our quest to find evidence of life on the Red Planet.
But like so many other people’s New Year resolutions, I have already broken mine. This past weekend, a report surfaced (again) that the Viking landers (yes, the ones back from the 1970’s that Carl Sagan had a hand in helping) had found organics in its original Martian soil analysis. NASA decided to go back to the Viking data and re-analyze the information based on the 2008 Phoenix landers mission that discovered perchlorates in the sands of Mars. What was thought at the time (in the 1970’s) to be contamination of perchlorates from Earth that the Viking crafts brought along with them, scientists now realize that the original Viking analysis was a “false negative”. Perchlorates are native to Mars.
Now this is far from being able to say that there is proof that there ever was, or currently is, life on Mars. But it is another piece of a puzzle that is being filled in, one slow step at a time, that continues to paint a picture of some kind of life on Mars. The search for extraterrestrial life is a long, slow, process. Modern humans are anything but slow and patient, so I expect to continue to see lots of stories, both real and contrived, about Mars in 2011 as we creep ever closer to the actual day in which humans can declare, with scientific certainty, that Earth is not the only planet that harbors (or once harbored) life.
This is actually not new news, there were reports last year about this very subject. Exactly why this story is making the rounds again this past week in the media is not entirely clear. But NASA does have a habit of keeping the subject of Mars very active in the media with press releases, articles, and news conferences on a somewhat regular basis. NASA may have learned a lesson from the false negative from the Viking missions. It took a long time (20 years) to get back to Mars with new orbiters, landers, and rovers since the Viking missions. Had the data concerning perchlorates been established in the 1970’s, NASA might have made more immediate efforts to get back to The Red Planet much sooner than we had. NASA needs to keep Mars in the headlines in order to perpetuate America’s interest (and funding) so that more missions can continue through the 2010’s and beyond. As long as we continue to collect data that supports the theory of life on Mars, then the media efforts by NASA are a necessary and reasonable.