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 July 30, 1997

Pathfinder Data and Pictures Said to be Consistent with Claims

In a presented at the International Society for Optical Engineering in San Diego today, Viking life detection experimenter Dr. Gilbert V. Levin, President of Biospherics Incorporated, said he has now concluded that his experiment detected microbial life on Mars 21 years ago. Based on a re-evaluation of his and other Viking results coupled with new Martian and Earth relevant scientific data, Levin stated: "The only conclusion consistent with all the known facts is that the Viking Labeled Release Experiment discovered microorganisms in the soil of Mars." Levin also claimed that his paper, written before Pathfinder landed on Mars, is supported by images and data from that spacecraft.

 The paper presents the scientific findings supporting this new conclusion, which just appeared in a chapter written by Dr. Levin in the book, Mars: The Living Planet, by Barry DiGregorio, published this week (Frog, Ltd., Berkeley, California).

 Until now, Levin's strongest statement about his 1976 Viking Mission findings was that it was "more probable that not" that the Labeled Release (LR) Experiment had detected life on Mars. Even this inconclusive statement made 10 years ago still causes considerable controversy. NASA has contended that one or more chemicals in the Martian surface material had mimicked life in Levin's experiment. The majority of interested scientists agreed with this simpler explanation of Viking's most intriguing discovery. A number of reasons were cited to explain why life could not exist on Mars. Only a small minority of microbiologists and planetary scientists supported Levin's interpretation of the data. In today's presentation, Levin said that, over the years, and particularly very recently, the obstacles to the existence of life on Mars and the proposed chemical explanations of the LR results have fallen one by one.

 The strongest argument against life on Mars came from another Viking experiment, the Gas Chromatograph Mass-Spectrometer (GCMS). Designed to identify organic matter expected in the Martian surface material, the GCMS reported there was none. Since organic matter is the stuff of life, it was widely concluded that Mars was sterile. The GCMS barrier was removed by the exciting recent reports of organic matter and fossilized remains of microorganisms in meteorites believed to have come from Mars. When asked why the Viking GCMS had not found organic matter, a top NASA official explained that the instrument sent to Mars was not sensitive enough to detect the amount of organic matter in the meteorites.

 The chemical theories also suffered a major setback. Hydrogen peroxide, perhaps in combination with other chemicals in the Martian surface material, had been theorized to have produced false life signals when tested in the LR. Recently, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center scientists reported that highly sensitive Earth telescope experiments found no evidence of hydrogen peroxide on Mars. The finding capped years of unsuccessful attempts by many researchers to duplicate the Mars LR results through chemistry, including many varieties of peroxides.

 The reported lack of liquid water on the Martian surface was another "proof" that life could not exist on Mars. Water was said to occur on the surface only as ice, which, upon warming, immediately became vapor because of low atmospheric pressure. However, Levin presented Viking Orbiter and Lander data proving that liquid water does occur on the surface of the Red Planet. Viking data on temperature and atmospheric pressure at the Martian surface prove that water occurs in liquid form in the upper few millimeters of the soil. Thus, the dew-deposited ground frost shown each morning in the Viking images melts into liquid water as the temperature rises with the sun. The liquid would be available to microorganisms each day.

 Next, the concept that the environment of Mars was too harsh for life fell to a stream of discoveries of life on Earth in places long believed uninhabitable. Long thought to constitute merely a "thin film" around Earth, life is now known to inhabit the heights and depths of our planet. Microorganisms were found to have survived thousands of years in permafrost thousands of feet beneath the ground surface. Others were found living in cold and hot deserts inside rocks. Life was found at temperatures far above previously supposed limits; in sunless deep waters where the only source of energy is water and rock; and life forms never before known were found, requiring reconstruction of scientists' basic diagrams of evolution of the species. Microorganisms were reported to be recovered after millions of years in ultra-dry storage. Microbes have even been reported living in organic solvents devoid of liquid water. There is now ample evidence that life on Earth has survived environments far harsher than those at the Viking landing sites, including the gradual flooding of our atmosphere with the highly toxic gas, oxygen-which Earth life evolved to survive and utilize.

 Recent announcements concerning the Martian meteorites have revived the whole issue of life on Mars. Meteorite EETA79001 is reported to contain evidence for life dating from only 600,000 years ago, a time well after any major change in the Martian environment. If life were on Mars only 600,000 years ago, most biologists would fully expect it to be there today. But the Martian meteorites do something even more important to provide credibility to Levin's claim. They remove the ultimate barrier to accepting the evidence for life on Mars. This is the requirement for a separate origin of life, a process far more complex, and, therefore more unbelievable, than any chemical scenario, even though the latter remains to be demonstrated. The meteorites support the "Panspermia" theory proposed by the 19th century Swedish Nobel Laureate, Svente Arrhenius, who said that life travels through space, landing on planets and infecting those with receptive conditions. Levin points out that, even if the meteorites containing biological evidence are not from Mars, they will still have proved that microbial life travels between planets. Once material is dislodged from a planet by meteor impact, any microorganisms in it would be preserved by the cold vacuum of space, the conditions used in laboratories to preserve microorganisms in dormancy for long periods. Such microorganisms can then be fully resuscitated by placing them in a favorable environment again, such as might occur upon impacting another planet. Newly published calculations show that material ejected into space by meteoric impact must come from the surface of the impacted planet. Thus, if the meteorites containing biological findings are, indeed, from Mars, they validate that microorganisms would have been in surface material such as that taken in the LR sample.

 Levin also studied the Viking Lander images looking for signs of life that might support his LR data. In 1978, he reported that some areas of the soil and some rocks bore greenish patterns that changed in shape over the 6 years that the Viking cameras kept sending pictures back to Earth. This was the first time colors other than orange-red were attributed to Mars, and a major controversy ensued until the colors were independently confirmed by other Viking scientists. Levin brought lichen-bearing rocks to NASA's Viking simulation site and had the rocks imaged by and processed through the Viking camera system. A scientific comparison of the colored patterns on the Martian rocks matched the lichen-colored patches on the Earth rocks. Levin cited lichen as a good model for the life he claims on Mars, not only because of this analysis, but also because lichen are known to live under conditions nearly as extreme as those on the Red Planet.

 In his talk, Levin stated that Pathfinder, our first return to Mars in 21 years, should have contained a life detection experiment, especially since the President and the NASA Administrator have stated that the discovery of life on Mars is NASA's top priority. While NASA included none, Levin claims to have a "Trojan Horse" aboard Pathfinder in the form of its cameras. More precise than Viking's, Pathfinder's imaging equipment may show formations undeniably biological, such as colonial clusters of lichen or similar organisms.

 Commenting on the continuing stream of Pathfinder pictures and data, Levin says they are consistent with his conclusion that there is life on Mars. The meteorological data fully confirm the presence of liquid water in the topsoil each morning. The black-and-white as well as the color images show slick areas that may well be moist patches. Sojourner's tire tracks leave tiny vertical piles of soil consistent with their being moist. The color images confirm Levin's finding of brown to green areas on the surface and rocks. "I'm just waiting for that picture of lichen," he says, "to convince everyone finally that I've reached the right conclusion!"

 Meanwhile, Levin has proposed a low-cost, simple life detection test for NASA's Surveyor '98, scheduled to be launched to Mars this fall. The test is based on the fact that only living things distinguish right-handed organic molecules from their left-handed twins. So far NASA has declined interest, saying it intends to look for life on Mars by bringing samples back to Earth within the next several years. Levin strongly cautions against this, saying that "Although Earth has probably received many microorganisms from Mars as its meteorites impacted us over the eons, there still could be very dangerous surprises in such samples that could jeopardize our environment and life itself."

 Levin did his Viking work and other space research under NASA contracts to his firm, Biospherics Incorporated (NASDAQ/BINC), Beltsville, Maryland, which he founded in 1967 and where he remains as President. In addition to Viking, he was also designated by NASA as an Experimenter aboard the Mariner 9 Mission to Mars, and the ill-fated Russian '96 Mars Lander.

 Under its motto, "Technologies for Information and Health," Biospherics' mission is to provide guidance and products to improve the quality of life. The Firm offers telecommunications and database management information systems, and proprietary food and medical innovations.

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 Sir Fred Hoyle, 011-44-202-556474
Dr. Robert Jastrow, Director, Wilson Observatory
Dr. Ron Weiner, Department of Microbiology, University of Maryland
Dr. John Brewer, Vice President (retired), Becton Dickenson, Inc., (410) 255-8484
Dr. Harley Halvorson, Woods Hole Marine Biology Laboratory

Copyright © 1996, 1997 Biospherics Inc.