Other Work

Meteorite May Show Mars Once Had Life
By Kathy Sawyer
The Washington Post | Wednesday, Aug. 07, 1996, p. A01

Evidence that primitive microscopic life existed on Mars 3.6 billion years ago may have been found in a meteorite that fell to Earth.

During an exhaustive study of minuscule fissures in the surface of the Mars rock, a team led by researchers from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston found what they say could be fossils of tiny extraterrestrial organisms stuck to the surfaces.

They describe the findings in a paper to be published next week in the journal Science. But by yesterday word had spread around the world. Harried NASA officials scheduled a news conference for today.

The researchers report in their peer-reviewed paper -- a draft of which was provided to The Washington Post -- that they have found the first complex organic molecules of the sort required for carbon-based life ever seen in a Martian rock. They assembled a list of these and other features -- each of which, taken individually, could be explained by non-biological means.

However, they write, "when considered collectively . . . we conclude that [these phenomena] are evidence for primitive life on early Mars."

NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin issued a statement late yesterday saying, "NASA has made a startling discovery." He called the evidence "exciting, even compelling, but not conclusive. . . . I want everyone to understand that we are not talking about 'little green men.' These are extremely small, single-cell creatures that somewhat resemble bacteria on Earth. There is no evidence or suggestion that any higher life form ever existed on Mars."

Norman Horowitz, biology professor emeritus at Cal-Tech and a veteran of the Viking Mars program, said of the discovery, "It's certainly interesting if true." But he added that, to be firmly convinced, he would want confirming evidence of biological characteristics that would no longer exist in such an old rock.

Several other scientists expressed skepticism at aspects of the findings. Simon J. Clemett of Stanford University, a co-author of the Science paper, said this is a natural reaction. "We have about five different lines of evidence. No one observation is the type of thing you'd call a smoking gun."

Author and scientist Carl Sagan of Cornell, who has studied and written for 40 years on the importance of such a discovery, said, "If it is truly a microfossil from ancient Martian history, it is a transforming discovery in the history of science. Not just that, but it provides a profound perspective on our place in the universe."

The only way to confirm the discovery, according to Sagan and others, is to go to Mars.

The United States and other space-faring nations plan to launch the first in a new series of Mars-bound spacecraft beginning in November, though their main thrust is not the search for life. The last big U.S. mission to Mars suffered a catastrophic failure in 1993 just as it arrived at its destination. The space agency also has undertaken a long-term initiative to search for Earth-like worlds where life might have evolved among the stars beyond the sun.