Other Work

Evidence of Ancient Life Alters Mars Missions
By Kathy Sawyer
The Washington Post | Monday, Aug. 19, 1996, pg. A03

On Independence Day next year, the planet Mars will be invaded by aliens.

The Mars Pathfinder is scheduled to arrive there from Earth on July 4, ride a huge, billowing parachute down to the rock-strewn mouth of an ancient river channel and bounce as high as a four-story building before it settles into a pile of airbags. A pint-size robot rover resembling a skateboard is to roll out and get to work -- a harbinger of things to come.

That landing in the sunny Ares Vallis will be the first on Mars since the twin U.S. Vikings touched down there in 1976. But between the two events, something strange has happened. While the pioneering Vikings found no clear evidence that life ever existed on Mars, scientists earlier this month revealed that promising evidence of ancient Martian microbes has turned up right here on Earth -- in a meteorite found in Antarctica.

Now Mars scientists are refining their strategy for exploring Mars, even before the first in their planned armada of Mars-bound spacecraft gets underway. The detection of what could be microscopic fossils in the Martian meteorite suggests higher odds of success than previously imagined in the quest for life on Mars, according to Daniel McCleese, manager of Earth and space sciences at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

"We look at the meteorite find . . . as an important clue about how one wants to go about the search for life on Mars," he said. "Even if the suggestion of life [in the rock] is not sustained," the undisputed aspects of the findings -- the complex organic material, for example -- "suggest the right environment for life."