There is ‘contemporary’ life on Mars: leading space scientist

August 10th, 2008 - 12:36 pm ICT by IANS  

By Dipankar De Sarkar
London, Aug 10 (IANS) A leading international space scientist says there is now clear evidence of life on Mars but that American authorities are hesitating from announcing it for political reasons. “The discovery of liquid water on Mars combined with earlier discoveries of organic substances in a meteorite that came from Mars, and also of methane in the Martian atmosphere all point to the existence of life - contemporary life - on the Red Planet,” said Chandra Wickramasinghe, a globally renowned astrobiologist.

“I am not speaking of fossilized life but contemporary life,” emphasised Wickramasinghe, who is professor of applied mathematics and astronomy at the University of Cardiff in Wales.

Wickramasinghe, a student and collaborator of the late British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle, spoke to London-based Sri Lankan diplomat and journalist Walter Jayawardhana, who made the text of the interview available to IANS.

Wickramasinghe, an internationally-respected astrobiologist, is also a leading advocate of a theory known as Panspermia, which suggests that all planets have been seeded for life by microbes from outer space and is thought to be a minority-view among scientists.

Wickramasinghe’s associate Hoyle, a Cambridge scientist who was controversially overlooked for the Nobel Prize, was also the PhD guide of Indian astrophysicist Jayant Narlikar.

Hoyle’s co-worker William Alfred Fowler won a 1983 Nobel along with the Indian-origin scientist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar for their work on neucleosynthesis - a concept that was established by Hoyle in 1946.

In his interview, Wickramasinghe said the discovery of subsurface water ice in the north polar regions of Mars - announced July 31 by US scientists - combined with earlier developments leads him to believe there is life on Mars.

“Even as early as 1976, when the two NASA space probes, Viking 1 and Viking 2, landed on Mars, experiments carried out in situ pointed strongly to the existence of active microbial life.

“In one experiment nutrient broth was poured onto a sample of Martian soil, and it frothed up so vigorously exuding carbon dioxide, that a positive detection of life might have been inferred.

“But when the NASA scientists looked for organic material, the detritus of living organisms, around the landing site, their experiments yielded negative or ambiguous results. So NASA cautiously concluded, ‘no organics means no life detected’.

“But 32 years on, my friend Gil Levin, who was principal investigator on this project maintains that life on Mars was indeed detected in 1976! The experiments of 1976 to detect the dead bodies and decomposition products of bacteria were simply not sensitive enough,” Wickramasinghe told Jayawardhana.

The Cardiff University astrobiologist said the delay in announcing life on Mars has little to do with science.

“I think there could be political and sociological considerations at work,” he said.

“Firstly, if life was already detected, then there is no need to spend vast sums of money to continue the search.

“Secondly, there is a lot of scientific interest nowadays in bringing back samples of Martian soil to Earth at the cost of tens of billions of dollars, and there is a lobby that says if microbes exist on Mars we should not be doing this. It could pose a biohazard.”

Wickramasinghe said authorities might be deterred by prospects of litigation arising from Planetary Protection - the guiding principle in the design of interplanetary missions that aims to prevent biological contamination of both the target celestial body and the Earth.

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