Back when I was in college, I had a professor who had worked peripherally on the Viking Mars lander project in the 70’s. He said that before the probe was launched, the teams had decided that if the chemical and biological tests came out a certain way, that would be declared a positive test for ‘life’ on Mars. Lo and behold, the tests came back with the positive result. They all rocked back on their heels, told the White House, and were told in no uncertain terms to not release a statement saying there was life on Mars until there was absolute certainty – a prudent response.
The team went back over their protocols and said, hey, look, the test was positive, what do you want us to do? The powers-that-be then asked for some details, and it turns out that there were three separate and distinct experiments to test for ‘life’ using different methods, and the scientists had agreed that if any one (or more) of them came back positive, that was ‘life’. Well, what had happened is that only one had come back positive, so the powers-that-be said, nope, you only got one positive result out of three so that’s not enough to make such a momentous call.
Over the intervening decades, further analysis of the ‘failed’ tests resulted in a hypothesis that they had failed because at that time we didn’t know that the Martian surface contained a certain substance…my feeble memory wants to say some kind of chlorate? In any case, when the two failed tests were re-modeled taking into account the now-verified existence of this substance in the Martian soil, the two tests also came back positive.
So, for me, my original early 1980’s college class sowed the seeds of doubt for me, and I felt that there was a pretty good chance there was at least some kind of microbial life there. The intervening re-analysis of the two previously-failed experiments solidified this belief, for me, but again who was I to think I knew better given the lack of any unambiguous confirmation from the powers-that-be. However, from the late-80’s on, I have been pretty sure that a) there was life on Mars and b) the powers-that-be knew it but didn’t want to unleash the sociological impact that such an announcement could potentially engender, and so figured they would gradually work up to the announcement, and hopefully keep the info ambiguous enough to delay things long enough for it to become someone else’s problem.
Which brings us to today, when NASA announced the confirmation of flowing liquid salt water on the surface of Mars. The scientist releasing the findings (Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta) had this to say:
“If the water is completely saturated with perchlorates, then life as we know it on Earth wouldn’t be able to survive in that sort of concentrated water. But if the water only has a tiny percentage of perchlorates in it, then I think we should be fine.”
First, aha, it was PERchlorates, not chlorates as I incorrectly recalled above (but I was close!). Second, I think this announcement is another step in laying the foundation for flat-out stating that there is life on Mars. Maybe not exactly as we know it on Earth, but even here we are finding extremophiles that our changing our definition of “life as we know it” every day.
So, my take is that this is as far as the powers-that-be are allowing the scientists to go with their announcements for now. If I were a betting man, I’d put a few large down that at this very moment some scientist somewhere is looking over video from the probes of Martian microbes getting jiggy with it, and that at some point in the future when the powers-that-be finally agree to lift the curtain and we’ll find out that a lot of clandestine research has been happening while we were kept in the dark.
I can’t know for certain, seeing as how I’m just a dumbass with a blog and a dilettantish interest in science. However, given that President Obama is entering the last year of his final term, and won’t have much to lose by making an announcement, and won’t have to hang around to clean up any collateral sociological messes, I could see him striding down the I-Killed-bin-Laden hallway, stepping up the mic, and letting the cat out of the bag in the waning months of his Presidency. Then he gets to go down in history as the President who first announced life on another planet. That’s gotta be tough to resist, presuming I’m reading the tea leaves correctly.
In any case, flowing liquid water on Mars is a tremendous announcement in and of itself, and strongly supports the potential for life on Mars.
I can’t wait.