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NASA is about to make a big announcement from its Curiosity Rover Mars mission according to John Grotzinger, its principal investigator. Will it be a giant leap forward in the search for life on Mars? Speculation began soon after Grotzinger gave an interview on NPR public radio on November 20 where he said: "This data is gonna be one for the history books. It's looking really good."    In the NPR interview, Grotzinger said it would be several weeks before his team would announce their finding. A clue as to what was discovered is that the data comes from Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars instrument – basically an onboard chemistry lab that is capable of identifying organic compounds – the carbon-containing building blocks of life as we know it. While organic compounds do not necessarily mean that life exists/existed on Mars, they are a vital ingredient in the formation of life. NASA’s big upcoming announcement is most likely to be that it has discovered organic compounds on Mars – possibly, the fossilized remains of ancient Martian microbes.

NASA has been here before. In August 1996, David McKay and a team of NASA scientists published their analysis of a Martian meteorite discovered in Antarctica. The meteorite was found to have carbon compounds that looked very much like fossil remains of ancient Martian microbes. Here is how Mackay explained their findings:

The carbonate globules are similar in texture and size to some terrestrial bacterially induced carbonate precipitates. Although inorganic formation is possible, formation of the globules by biogenic processes could explain many of the observed features, including the PAHs [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons]. The PAHs, the carbonate globules, and their associated secondary mineral phases and textures could thus be fossil remains of a past martian biota.

The announcement was big news at the time, and led to President Clinton making a statement:

It is well worth contemplating how we reached this moment of discovery. More than 4 billion years ago this piece of rock was formed as a part of the original crust of Mars. After billions of years it broke from the surface and began a 16 million year journey through space that would end here on Earth. It arrived in a meteor shower 13,000 years ago. And in 1984 an American scientist on an annual U.S. government mission to search for meteors on Antarctica picked it up and took it to be studied. Appropriately, it was the first rock to be picked up that year — rock number 84001. Today, rock 84001 speaks to us across all those billions of years and millions of miles. It speaks of the possibility of life. If this discovery is confirmed, it will surely be one of the most stunning insights into our universe that science has ever uncovered. Its implications are as far-reaching and awe-inspiring as can be imagined. Even as it promises answers to some of our oldest questions, it poses still others even more fundamental.

The 1996 discovery then got bogged down in scientific debate over whether or not the meteorite was polluted by Earth microbes. Critics claimed NASA scientists had not sufficiently accounted for this possibility. Not so according to a new 2009 study by NASA scientists, including McKay, from the Johnson Space Center that upheld the earlier findings and concluded: “None of the original features supporting our hypothesis for ALH84001 has either been discredited or has been positively ascribed to non-biologic explanations."

The continuing debate over the 1996 Mars meteorite has led to Grotzinger and his team taking a cautious approach to announcing the results of their analysis of the data sent back by Curiosity’s SAM instrument. If, as Grotnzinger suggests, the results are upheld, we will soon hear that organic compounds have been found on Mars. More importantly, they might be the fossil remnants of ancient microbiological life. You can then expect President Obama following in the footsteps of President Clinton, and make his own public announcement concerning the implications of ancient life on Mars.

© Copyright 2012. Michael E. Salla. Exopolitics.org

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Early this morning US Eastern Time, the Mars Science Laboratory (aka Curiosity rover) successfully landed on Mars. “Curiosity's main assignment,” according to NASA, “is to investigate whether its study area ever has offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life.” To achieve its two year exploratory mission, the nuclear powered Curiosity carries 15 times as much scientific equipment as on previous Mars rovers.  Curiosity will analyze samples of soil, rocks and atmosphere on the spot and transmit results back to NASA scientists. NASA claims that “Curiosity is a bold step forward in learning about our neighboring planet.” Importantly, according to Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., "This mission transitions the program's science emphasis from the planet's water history to its potential for past or present life."

If you are interested in learning about the possibility of current life on Mars, Curiosity is not designed to answer that question. Why not you may ask? According to NASA, the inconclusive results of past NASA experiments of current microbial life on Mars meant that there was no point repeating such experiments and risk new scientific controversy. NASA has a right to be concerned since controversy over the Viking Lander experiments in 1976 has not gone away. According to a scientific study published in April 2012, the Viking experiments successfully detected life after all. All this makes NASA’s current emphasis on seeking whether conditions ever existed on Mars for life look rather trivial, and a step in the wrong direction.

Here is what self-congratulatory Press releases from NASA over Curiosity’s successful landing won’t tell you. In April 2012, a team of scientists and mathematicians analyzing data from the 1976 Viking Mission concluded that life on Mars was detected in one of the four experiments conducted by the two robotic landers. Their report, “Complexity Analysis of the Viking Labeled Release Experiments,” released in the International Journal of Aeronautical and Space Sciences resurrected the controversy over results of the Viking Mission’s “Labeled Released experiment” designed by Dr Gilbert Levin. The Viking mission was the only Mars mission so far that was designed by NASA to detect life. Dr Levin was confident that the experiment had detected microbial life on Mars, but his NASA colleagues disagreed and his startling finding was forgotten in the Martian sands of time. This new scientific investigation has concluded that Levin was right all along.  Here is what the team of scientists concluded in their 2012 report:

The only extraterrestrial life detection experiments ever conducted were the three which were components of the 1976 Viking Mission to Mars. Of these, only the Labeled Release experiment obtained a clearly positive response…. We have applied complexity analysis to the Viking LR data….We conclude that the complexity pattern seen in active experiments strongly suggests biology while the different pattern in the control responses is more likely to be non-biological….These analyses support the interpretation that the Viking LR experiment did detect extant microbial life on Mars.

So why has NASA not designed any new experiments for detecting current life on Mars? That’s the 2.5 billion dollar question that should be asked with the Curiosity mission and budget. Are we really expected to believe that after more than three decades since Viking, NASA still can’t design an experiment to conclusively answer whether or not life currently exists on Mars? Rather than Curiosity being a “bold step forward in learning about our neighboring planet,” it looks like an expensive step backwards to avoid renewed scientific controversy over whether or not life exists on Mars.

© Copyright 2012. Michael E. Salla. Exopolitics.org

Permission is granted to include extracts of this article on websites and email lists with a link to the original. This article is copyright © and should not be added in its entirety on other websites or email lists without author's permission.

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Edinburgh University is set to launch a series of six free online courses in Autumn 2012, one of which is titled: “Introduction to Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life”. The course involves five lectures to be presented online and will result in a certificate to all that complete it. Edinburgh is teaming up with Princeton and Stanford universities in an effort to make available undergraduate courses to a global audience for free as part of the Coursera consortium.  According to Edinburgh University spokesperson, Ranald Leask: “Something like extraterrestrial life comes out of a wide and deep base of knowledge and academic endeavour.” Leask is referring to the progress made by the scientific community in confirming the existence of distant exoplanets and that some of these have the right conditions for hosting life as we know it. Princeton was the first U.S. university to offer a degree in astrobiology. Now thanks to Edinburgh University, astrobiology courses that focus on questions concerning the existence of extraterrestrial life are going global.

Edinburgh’s “Search for Extraterrestrial Life” course will be taught by Professor Charles Cockell who has authored two books on Mars, worked for NASA, and is the current Director for the UK Center for Astrobiology. Cockell’s course will examine questions such as “Is there life on other planetary bodies?” and “How is it distributed throughout the Universe?”

According to Rory Reynolds from the Scotsman:

The first two weeks of the course explore the origins of life and how beings survive in extreme environments, with the focus in the third week moving to the possibility of life being discovered on other planets. The final week includes asking how contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence would be dealt with and what would be the impact on society. It concludes with the question “who would represent Earth?” in the event of first contact.

The course is a direct result in the ongoing discovery of exoplanets, some of which have been confirmed to exist in the habitable region of their suns. This has sparked a number of academic conferences focusing on the social and political impact of the discovery of extraterrestrial life. Two were hosted by the Royal Society of London in 2010, and led to much media interest over scientific speculations over the likely motivations of extraterrestrial life. The most notable has been Prof Stephen Hawkings’ view about space faring extraterrestrials being more likely predatory in nature than friendly.

Recent advances in space telescopes have now made it possible to detect alien metropolises on distant worlds. On May 8, 2012, NASA announced: “NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has detected light emanating from a “super-Earth” beyond our solar system for the first time. While the planet is not habitable, the detection is a historic step toward the eventual search for signs of life on other planets.”  According to Dario Borghino from  Gizmag: “This marks the first time that light has been detected from a planet of such a small size, and the find is telling astrophysicists where to look in their search for signs of life on planets beyond our own.”

The question to be examined in the final week of the Edinburgh Unniversity course, “who would represent Earth” in the case of contact is very significant. It first came to public prominence in 2010 in relation to Dr Mazlan Othman from the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs who was a presenter at the Royal Society astrobiology conference in October 2010. There was much media speculation over a story in the Sunday Times mistakenly claiming that Dr Othman would represent Earth on behalf of all humanity. In an earlier talk, Othman did say however:

The continued search for extraterrestrial communication, by several entities, sustains the hope that some day human kind will receive signals from extraterrestrials. When we do, we should have in place a coordinated response that takes into account all the sensitivities related to the subject. The UN is a ready-made mechanism for such coordination.

Edinburgh University’s upcoming “Introduction to Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life” course will open up an exciting new era in the study of extraterrestrial life. Core questions regarding the existence and societal implications of extraterrestrial life are being raised by respected scientists, and will now be discussed by students around the world. According to Jeff Haywood, vice principal of the University of Edinburgh, the number of students for the online course is potentially 100,000 students or more. That projected enrollment figure is in itself a remarkable possibility. Whether 100,000 students enroll or not, it is clear that the scholarly study of extraterrestrial life and its societal implications has entered mainstream scientific discourse and is now going global.

[Special Notice: The author teaches a course in the Exopolitics Institute’s Certification Program titled: The Science, Spirituality and Politics of Extraterrestrial Life. Fall Semester classes begin in early September. More info here.

© Copyright 2012. Michael E. Salla. Exopolitics.org

Permission is granted to include extracts of this article on websites and email lists with a link to the original. This article is copyright © and should not be added in its entirety on other websites or email lists without author’s permission.

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