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Cosmos


Page 15 of 41

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Immediately after landing, the first pictures were to be returned. We knew we had chosen dull places. But we could hope. The first picture taken by the Viking 1 lander was of one of its own footpads—in case it were to sink into Martian quicksand, we wanted to know about it before the spacecraft disappeared. The picture built up, line by line, until with enormous relief we saw the footpad sitting high and dry above the Martian surface. Soon other pictures came into being, each picture element radioed individually back to Earth.

I remember being transfixed by the first lander image to show the horizon of Mars. This was not an alien world, I thought. I knew places like it in Colorado and Arizona and Nevada. There were rocks and sand drifts and a distant eminence, as natural and unselfconscious as any landscape on Earth. Mars was a place. I would, of course, have been surprised to see a grizzled prospector emerge from behind a dune leading his mule, but at the same time the idea seemed appropriate. Nothing remotely like it ever entered my mind in all the hours I spent examining the Venera 9 and 10 images of the Venus surface. One way or another, I knew, this was a world to which we would return.

The landscape is stark and red and lovely: boulders thrown out in the creation of a crater somewhere over the horizon, small sand dunes, rocks that have been repeatedly covered and uncovered by drifting dust, plumes of fine-grained material Mown about by the winds. Where did the rocks come from? How much sand had been blown by wind? What must the previous history of the planet have been to create sheared rocks, buried boulders, polygonal gouges in the ground? What are the rocks made of? The same materials as the sand? Is the sand merely pulverized rock or something else? Why is the sky pink? What is the air made of? How fast does the wind blow? Are there marsquakes? How do the atmospheric pressure and the appearance of the landscape change with the seasons?

For every one of these questions Viking has provided definitive or at least plausible answers. The Mars revealed by the Viking mission is of enormous interest—particularly when we remember that the landing sites were chosen for their dullness. But the cameras revealed no sign of canal builders, no Barsoomian aircars or short swords, no princesses or fighting men, no thoats, no footprints, not even a cactus or a kangaroo rat. For as far as we could see, there was not a sign of life.*

Perhaps there are large lifeforms on Mars, but not in our two landing sites. Perhaps there are smaller forms in every rock and sand grain. For most of its history, those regions of the Earth not covered by water looked rather like Mars today—with an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide, with ultraviolet light shining fiercely down on the surface through an atmosphere devoid of ozone. Large plants and animals did not colonize the land until the last 10 percent of Earth history. And yet for three billion years there were microorganisms everywhere on Earth. To look for life on Mars, we must look for microbes.

The Viking lander extends human capabilities to other and alien landscapes. By some standards, it is about as smart as a grasshopper; by others, only as intelligent as a bacterium. There is nothing demeaning in these comparisons. It took nature hundreds of millions of years to evolve a bacterium, and billions to make a grasshopper. With only a little experience in this sort of business, we are becoming fairly skillful at it. Viking has two eyes as we do, but they also work in the infrared, as ours do not; a sample arm that can push rocks, dig and acquire soil samples; a kind of finger that it puts up to measure wind speed and direction; a nose and taste buds, of a sort, with which it senses, to a much higher precision than we can, the presence of trace molecules; an interior ear with which it can detect the rumbling of marsquakes and the gentler wind-driven jiggling of the spacecraft; and a means of detecting microbes. The spacecraft has its own self-contained radioactive power source. It radios all the scientific information it acquires back to Earth. It receives instructions from Earth, so human beings can ponder the significance of the Viking results and tell the spacecraft to do something new.

But what is the optimum way, given severe constraints on size, cost and power requirements, to search for microbes on Mars? We cannot—at least as yet—send microbiologists there. I once had a friend, an extraordinary microbiologist named Wolf Vishniac, of the University of Rochester, in New York. In the late 1950’s, when we were just beginning to think seriously about looking for life on Mars, he found himself at a scientific meeting where an astronomer expressed amazement that the biologists had no simple, reliable, automated instrument capable of looking for microorganisms. Vishniac decided he would do something about the matter.

He developed a small device to be sent to the planets. His friends called it the Wolf Trap. It would carry a little vial of nutrient organic matter to Mars, arrange for a sample of Martian soil to be mixed with it, and observe the changing turbidity or cloudiness of the liquid as the Martian bugs (if there were any) grew (if they would). The Wolf Trap was selected along with three other microbiology experiments to go aboard the Viking landers. Two of the other three experiments also chose to send food to the Martians. The success of the Wolf Trap required that Martian bugs like liquid water. There were those who thought that Vishniac would only drown the little Martians. But the advantage of the Wolf Trap was that it laid no requirements on what the Martian microbes must do with their food. They had only to grow. All the other experiments made specific assumptions about gases that would be given off or taken in by the microbes, assumptions that were little more than guesses.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which runs the United States planetary space program, is subject to frequent and unpredictable budget cuts. Only rarely are there unanticipated budget increases. NASA scientific activities have very little effective support in the government, and so science is most often the target when money needs to be taken away from NASA. In 1971 it was decided that one of the four microbiology experiments must be removed, and the Wolf Trap was off-loaded. It was a crushing disappointment for Vishniac, who had invested twelve years in its development.

Many others in his place might have stalked off the Viking Biology Team. But Vishniac was a gentle and dedicated man. He decided instead that he could best serve the search for life on Mars by voyaging to the most Mars-like environment on Earth—the dry valleys of Antarctica. Some previous investigators had examined Antarctic soil and decided that the few microbes they were able to find were not really natives of the dry valleys, but had been blown there from other, more clement environments. Recalling the Mars Jars experiments, Vishniac believed that life was tenacious and that Antarctica was perfectly consistent with microbiology. If terrestrial bugs could live on Mars, he thought, why not in Antarctica—which was by and large warmer, wetter, and had more oxygen and much less ultraviolet light. Conversely, finding life in Antarctic dry valleys would correspondingly improve, he thought, the chances of life on Mars. Vishniac believed that the experimental techniques previously used to deduce no indigenous microbes in Antarctica were flawed. The nutrients, while suitable for the comfortable environment of a university microbiology laboratory, were not designed for the arid polar wasteland.

So on November 8, 1973, Vishniac, his new microbiology equipment and a geologist companion were transported by helicopter from McMurdo Station to an area near Mount Balder, a dry valley in the Asgard range. His practice was to implant the little microbiology stations in the Antarctic soil and return about a month later to retrieve them. On December 10, 1973, he left to gather samples on Mount Balder; his departure was photographed from about three kilometers away. It was the last time anyone saw him alive. Eighteen hours later, his body was discovered at the base of a cliff of ice. He had wandered into an area not previously explored, had apparently slipped on the ice and tumbled and bounced for a distance of 150 meters. Perhaps something had caught his eye, a likely habitat for microbes, say, or a patch of green where none should be. We will never know. In the small brown notebook he was carrying that day, the last entry reads, “Station 202 retrieved. 10 December, 1973. 2230 hours. Soil temperature, – 10°. Air temperature –

16°.” It had been a typical summer temperature for Mars.

Many of Vishniac’s microbiology stations are still sitting in Antarctica. But the samples that were returned were examined, using his methods, by his professional colleagues and friends. A wide variety of microbes, which would have been indetectable with conventional scoring techniques, was found in essentially every site examined. A new species of yeast, apparently unique to Antarctica, was discovered in his samples by his widow, Helen Simpson Vishniac. Large rocks returned from Antarctica in that expedition, examined by Imre Friedmann, turn out to have a fascinating microbiology—one or two millimeters inside the rock, algae have colonized a tiny world in which small quantities of water are trapped and made liquid. On Mars such a place would be even more interesting, because while the visible light necessary for photosynthesis would penetrate to that depth, the germicidal ultraviolet light would be at least partially attenuated.

Because the design of space missions is finalized many years before launch, and because of Vishniac’s death, the results of his Antarctic experiments did not influence the Viking design for seeking Martian life. In general, the microbiology experiments were not carried out at the low ambient Martian temperatures, and most did not provide long incubation times. They all made fairly strong assumptions about what Martian metabolism had to be like. There was no way to look for life inside the rocks.

Each Viking lander was equipped with a sample arm to acquire material from the surface and then slowly withdraw it into the innards of the spacecraft, transporting the particles on little hoppers like an electric train to five different experiments: one on the inorganic chemistry of the soil, another to look for organic molecules in the sand and dust, and three to look for microbial life. When we look for life on a planet, we are making certain assumptions. We try, as well as we can, not to assume that life elsewhere will be just like life here. But there are limits to what we can do. We know in detail only about life here. While the Viking biology experiments are a pioneering first effort, they hardly represent a definitive search for life on Mars. The results have been tantalizing, annoying, provocative, stimulating, and, at least until recently, substantially inconclusive.

Each of the three microbiology experiments asked a different kind of question, but in all cases a question about Martian metabolism. If there are microorganisms in the Martian soil, they must take in food and give off waste gases; or they must take in gases from the atmosphere and, perhaps with the aid of sunlight, convert them into useful materials. So we bring food to Mars and hope that the Martians, if there are any, will find it tasty. Then we see if any interesting new gases come out of the soil. Or we provide our own radioactively labeled gases and see if they are converted into organic matter, in which case small Martians are inferred.

By criteria established before launch, two of the three Viking microbiology experiments seem to have yielded positive results. First, when Martian soil was mixed with a sterile organic soup from Earth, something in the soil chemically broke down the soup—almost as if there were respiring microbes metabolizing a food package from Earth. Second, when gases from Earth were introduced into the Martian soil sample, the gases became chemically combined with the soil—almost as if there were photosynthesizing microbes, generating organic matter from atmospheric gases. Positive results in Martian microbiology were achieved in seven different samplings in two locales on Mars separated by 5,000 kilometers.

But the situation is complex, and the criteria of experimental success may have been inadequate. Enormous efforts were made to build the Viking microbiology experiments and test them with a variety of microbes. Very little effort was made to calibrate the experiments with plausible inorganic Martian surface materials. Mars is not the Earth. As the legacy of Percival Lowell reminds us, we can be fooled. Perhaps there is an exotic inorganic chemistry in the Martian soil that is able by itself, in the absence of Martian microbes, to oxidize foodstuffs. Perhaps there is some special inorganic, nonliving catalyst in the soil that is able to fix atmospheric gases and convert them into organic molecules.

Recent experiments suggest that this may indeed be the case. In the great Martian dust storm of 1971, spectral features of the dust were obtained by the Mariner 9 infrared spectrometer. In analyzing these spectra, O. B. Toon, J. B. Pollack and I found that certain features seem best accounted for by montmorillonite and other kinds of clay. Subsequent observations by the Viking lander support the identification of windblown clays on Mars. Now, A. Banin and J. Rishpon have found that they can reproduce some of the key features—those resembling photosynthesis as well as those resembling respiration—of the “successful” Viking microbiology experiments if in laboratory experiments they substitute such clays for the Martian soil. The clays have a complex active surface, given to adsorbing and releasing gases and to catalyzing chemical reactions. It is too soon to say that all the Viking microbiology results can be explained by inorganic chemistry, but such a result would no longer be surprising. The clay hypothesis hardly excludes life on Mars, but it certainly carries us far enough to say that there is no compelling evidence for microbiology on Mars.

Even so, the results of Banin and Rishpon are of great biological importance because they show that in the absence of life there can be a kind of soil chemistry that does some of the same things life does. On the Earth before life, there may already have been chemical processes resembling respiration and photosynthesis cycling in the soil, perhaps to be incorporated by life once it arose. In addition, we know that montmorillonite clays are a potent catalyst for combining amino acids into longer chain molecules resembling proteins. The clays of the primitive Earth may have been the forge of life, and the chemistry of contemporary Mars may provide essential clues to the origin and early history of life on our planet.

The Martian surface exhibits many impact craters, each named after a person, usually a scientist. Crater Vishniac lies appropriately in the Antarctic region of Mars. Vishniac did not claim that there had to be life on Mars, merely that it was possible, and that it was extraordinarily important to know if it was there. If life on Mars exists, we will have a unique opportunity to test the generality of our kind of life. And if there is no life on Mars, a planet rather like the Earth, we must understand why—because in that case, as Vishniac stressed, we have the classic scientific confrontation of the experiment and the control.

The finding that the Viking microbiology results can be explained by clays, that they need not imply life, helps to resolve another mystery: the Viking organic chemistry experiment showed not a hint of organic matter in the Martian soil. If there is life on Mars, where are the dead bodies? No organic molecules could be found—no building blocks of proteins and nucleic acids, no simple hydrocarbons, nothing of the stuff of life on Earth. This is not necessarily a contradiction, because the Viking microbiology experiments are a thousand times more sensitive (per equivalent carbon atom) than the Viking chemistry experiments, and seem to detect organic matter synthesized in the Martian soil. But this does not leave much margin. Terrestrial soil is loaded with the organic remains of once-living organisms; Martian soil has less organic matter than the surface of the Moon. If we held to the life hypothesis, we might suppose that the dead bodies have been destroyed by the chemically reactive, oxidizing surface of Mars—like a germ in a bottle of hydrogen peroxide; or that there is life, but of a kind in which organic chemistry plays a less central role than it does in life on Earth.

But this last alternative seems to me to be special pleading: I am, reluctantly, a self-confessed carbon chauvinist. Carbon is abundant in the Cosmos. It makes marvelously complex molecules, good for life. I am also a water chauvinist. Water makes an ideal solvent system for organic chemistry to work in and stays liquid over a wide range of temperatures. But sometimes I wonder. Could my fondness for materials have something to do with the fact that I am made chiefly of them? Are we carbon- and water-based because those materials were abundant on the Earth at the time of the origin of life?

Could life elsewhere—on Mars, say—be built of different stuff?

I am a collection of water, calcium and organic molecules called Carl Sagan. You are a collection of almost identical molecules with a different collective label. But is that all? Is there nothing in here but molecules? Some people find this idea somehow demeaning to human dignity. For myself, I find it elevating that our universe permits the evolution of molecular machines as intricate and subtle as we.

But the essence of life is not so much the atoms and simple molecules that make us up as the way in which they are put together. Every now and then we read that the chemicals which constitute the human body cost ninety-seven cents or ten dollars or some such figure; it is a little depressing to find our bodies valued so little. However, these estimates are for human beings reduced to our simplest possible components. We are made mostly of water, which costs almost nothing; the carbon is costed in the form of coal; the calcium in our bones as chalk; the nitrogen in our proteins as air (cheap also); the iron in our blood as rusty nails. If we did not know better, we might be tempted to take all the atoms that make us up, mix them together in a big container and stir. We can do this as much as we want. But in the end all we have is a tedious mixture of atoms. How could we have expected anything else?

Harold Morowitz has calculated what it would cost to put together the correct molecular constitutents that make up a human being by buying the molecules from chemical supply houses. The answer turns out to be about ten million dollars, which should make us all feel a little better. But even then we could not mix those chemicals together and have a human being emerge from the jar. That is far beyond our capability and will probably be so for a very long period of time. Fortunately, there are other less expensive but still highly reliable methods of making human beings.



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