NASA announced that it will send its next lander to Mars, known as the InSight Mars lander, in May of 2018. InSight, which stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations Geodesy and Heat Transport, is an international mission designed to help us understand how rocky planets, like Mars and the Earth, formed and evolved.
The heat of summer is upon us, lingering into evenings as Mars remains a tantalizing sight low in our southern sky. For years NASA’s mantra in the great endeavor to find life on other worlds has been “follow the water.” Evidence the red planet, which harbored substantial amounts liquid water, was considered a requisite for eventual discovery of “life as we know it” on that neighboring world. This chapter in the quest is now being supplanted. Evidence of Martian water has been found. Our Hayden blog back on October 6 illustrated cascades of water periodically flowing from walls of Horowitz Crater at Martian coordinates 32.04° S, 219.36° W. Searching for signs of life, evaluating sites for future habitation, and plans for personal human exploration are now in play. Previous missions including the Mars Odyssey, Mars Exploration Rovers, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and Mars Phoenix Lander were primarily designed to seek water. They did their jobs well, finding that evidence, allowing Mars Science Laboratory and its carrier, Curiosity Rover, to be tasked with a fresh mission “seeking signs of life.”
Forty years ago, we landed on Mars… and found life?
“The team held their breath as the control experiment was performed, and this is where things get fishy. Subsequent injections of radioactive nutrients failed to produce any response; what we were seeing was consistent with either organic or purely chemical, inorganic processes. Perhaps there wasn’t life on Mars, after all. Despite the initial declaration — that if any of the three tests came back positive, we’d announce life on Mars — these results seemed to be inconclusive. In the forty years since, we’ve never replicated the experiment, and we still don’t know for certain.”
On July 20, 1976, the Viking 1 lander touched down onto the Martian surface, followed just a few weeks later by Viking 2. On board both landers were a suite of three experiments designed to look for signs of life. While the Gas Chromatograph-Mass Spectrometer and the Gas Exchange experiment both came back negative, the Labeled Release experiment — where nutrient-rich molecules tagged with radioactive carbon-14 were added to the Martian soil — gave off a positive release of radioactive CO2. Did our first trip to Mars really find life after all?