Not since the twin Viking Landers set down on the surface of Mars over 24 years ago, has NASA included a biologist, paleontologist, or ichnologist (study of trace fossils) on any of its missions.
Viking was unique as the first spacecraft to land and search for life on another planet. As such, the Viking program enlisted the talents of three Principal Biology Investigators, a Biology Team Leader and co-experimenters.
Along with this official group were other interested biologists outside the program looking at the data in a peer review process that would lead to the publication of the scientific papers that followed.
While the argument of whether the Viking mission found evidence for microbial life on Mars continues today, the question of what has NASA done since Viking to solve the issue, remains. In truth, there has only been one other lander since Viking to set down on the surface of Mars, and that was Mars Pathfinder. Other missions were orbiters both from the US and Russia.
If you research or inquire about the scientists who were assigned to these missions you will learn quickly that none were specialists in the filed of biology - extant or extinct.
All of the missions to Mars since Viking have been the sole domain of geologists, meteorologists, physicists, and astronomers. It might be argued that since the Mars orbital and Mars Pathfinder missions did not have specific life sciences experiments onboard, that it was unnecessary to include any specialized biologists.
However, as most knowledgeable space enthusiasts are aware, even instruments designed to study rocks and minerals can be used to conduct biological investigations.
Infrared spectrometers have been included on all the orbiters - whether American or Russian. Mars Pathfinder had geology filters in its camera that could examine a range of spectral wavelengths.
In fact, the lead scientist for the Mars Pathfinder imaging team, Dr. Peter Smith who actually designed the Mars Pathfinder Imaging camera (IMP), conducted a rudimentary search for chlorophyll on Mars with fellow IMP team member, Dr. Justin Maki, a software designer.
Smith and Maki reported some spots had a higher than normal infrared brightness under the rock Scoobee-do and a few other areas surrounding the Mars Pathfinder landing site, but later dismissed this finding as a "possible image misregistration".
The spots they found were 20 percent brighter in the infrared. Smith had told ABC News in an interview that he was not fully aware how to interpret it.
The fact is, Drs. Smith and Maki were not qualified to make the judgment regarding a biological interpretation of the IMP data and Smith's comments to ABC News demonstrate this. The point is both Dr. Peter Smith, and Dr. Justin Maki are excellent scientists in their fields, but why leave something as an important as the search for life on Mars to scientists who are not qualified to make a biological assessment?
Perhaps because of the limited spectral rage of the IR filters employed in their search, the rational was that the Mars Pathfinder IMP camera would only be able to register the most blatant signs of chlorophyll if it were indeed on Mars. No one on the Mars Pathfinder team realistically expected them to find chlorophyll, but yet, something was detected. In 1999, I had an opportunity to conduct an experiment of my own regarding how geologists interpret their findings. Last June, the University of Buffalo, was host to the Second Mars Surveyor Landing Site Workshop.
Among the featured guest scientists were Dr's. Matthew Golombeck, Michael Carr, and Jack Farmer. Dr. Golombeck is a geologist and was Project Scientist for the Mars Pathfinder mission; Dr. Michael Carr is a USGS geologist working with NASA, and Dr. Jack Farmer, a NASA Exobiologist at the Ames Research Center in California.
I had been studying some Ordovician Period rocks I had found along the shores of Lake Ontario. They contained ubiquitous holes on all sides, and were the result of 500 million year old Bryozoans.
The Bryozoan fossils were eventually dissolved out of the sandstone matrix by acidic waters percolating through the rock for thousands of years. In many of the samples I collected, there were no body fossils at all - only the holes were they once resided. On a coffee break, I approached first, Dr. Golombeck, and then Dr. Carr, and asked if they could give me a brief interpretation of how they thought the holes were made in my Lake Ontario specimens. In separate statements made to me by both scientists, each said that only volcanic outgasing could explain the numerous holes.
I then specifically asked if there could be a biological interpretation for the holes - both of these scientists said no. Needless to say, I was very surprised by their answers.
Keep in mind, I have the utmost respect for both Dr. Carr and Dr. Golombeck. However, they are not biologists or paleontologists. Dr. Jack Farmer who was sitting nearby was next, what would he say, I thought? I pulled out my Lake Ontario specimens and handed one to Dr. Farmer.
He asked me where I had found it? I told him I would disclose the location after he gave me his interpretation of the numerous holes in the sandstone. At first he considered a volcanic origin as did Dr's. Golombeck and Carr, but then said he had seen similar holes produced by bivalves along the coast of California. Bingo. The exobiologist gets the cigar! What I did not tell the three NASA scientists is that I was writing a paper on a hypothesis I had based on my Lake Ontario specimens and rock images I have studied from the Viking 2 Landing site on Mars.
As I detailed in my paper (published in the Ichnology Newsletter - an informal scientific review of trace fossils), the holes in the rocks at the Viking 2 site look very much like the Bryozoan dissolution cavities from my Lake Ontario specimens.
Of course they also look like the sort of holes bivalves produce along the shorelines of California as Dr. Farmer suggested. But that was it - here was a viable biological hypothesis.
The reason I decided to make the comparison between the Lake Ontario rocks and Viking Lander rocks is because no one had postulated a biological interpretation up to this point- at least not in any scientific literature available to me.
I had read every report from Viking and although scientists were troubled by the ubiquitous nature of the holes in the rocks at the Viking 2 Landing site, most were happy to assume they were the result of volcanic processes, and this still remains the consensus today.
Ichnology, the study of trace fossils, is a highly specialized field I am only partly familiar with. Yet I did recognize the morphological similarities between both sets of rocks after spending two years looking at all the Viking Lander 1 and 2 surface images. My impetus for writing the paper comparing Viking Lander 2 rocks to my 500 million year old Lake Ontario specimens was to first try and provide a biological interpretation for the holes in the VL2 rocks. Second, the Utopia Planitia basin is thought by some scientists to be the bottom of an ancient ocean.
If Mars was warm enough and had an atmospheric pressure much higher than the triple point of water in its distant past, then it may have also developed life along a similar time frame as the Earth or perhaps even before.
The rocks at the Viking Lander 1 site looked completely different from those at VL2, and I asked myself why? There are few volcanoes near the VL2 site and impact ejecta did not seem to fit because of the way the rocks just sit on top of the landscape.
So if the rocks at VL2 were volcanic, then what was the source? I tried to approach each of these problems as thoroughly as possible in my paper and make recommendations for future studies. There is no doubt that the planet Mars has the scientific community captivated, but we must include biologists, paleontologists, and yes, ichnologists on actual missions.
We should assume nothing about Mars. Who can say for sure that Mars did not evolve some form of multicellular life in its ancient seas? This planet continually surprises us.
Science is about keeping an open mind, and our best minds are required to interpret new truths as they are discovered. Biological interpretations of data should not be left up to the Principal Investigator of a spacecraft optical system, nor the meteorologist, or the geologist.
Biological interpretations are best rendered by those that specialize in those particular fields. Likewise, geological interpretations should not be left strictly to the biologist either. Let us all hope that on future Mars missions that at least one qualified exobiologist is made a member of the science team.
Life's Rusty Old Debate
Austin - March 22, 2000 - Two geology professors at The University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Robert L. Folk and Dr. Kitty L. Milliken, have demonstrated that iron oxide filaments from a variety of geological periods on Earth are lifelike in form at microscopic levels. They say their research could have implications for Martian exploration and the search for some form of life on other planets.