Image: Viking lander
NASA
The Viking 1 lander sent back America's first pictures from the Martian surface in 1976. This picture shows off the lander's U.S. flag and Bicentennial logo as well as the planet's landscape.
updated 9/14/2010 11:51:01 AM ET 2010-09-14T15:51:01

Samples of Mars dirt collected by NASA's Viking Mars landers back in the 1970s may have contained carbon-based chemical building blocks of life as we know it, a new study suggests.

During their missions, the two Viking landers vaporized Martian dirt and scrutinized the samples for signs of organic — or carbon-based — molecules that could serve as the raw ingredients for life. At the time, all they found were chlorine compounds attributed to contamination, but the new research suggests the Viking probes' heat-treatment may have generated these chlorine compounds from naturally occurring Martian organics, destroying them in the process.

"This doesn't say anything about the question of whether or not life has existed on Mars, but it could make a big difference in how we look for evidence to answer that question," study co-author Chris McKay, of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., said in a statement.

Organic molecules can come from non-biological or biological sources. Meteorites raining on Mars and Earth for the past 5 billion years contain organics, so even if Mars has never supported life, scientists before the Viking missions expected Martian dirt to contain at least some organics, researchers have said.

New evidence from Phoenix
The new study follows a 2008 discovery made by the Phoenix Mars Lander. In its roughly five months on Mars, Phoenix found a chlorine-containing chemical called perchlorate in the Martian dirt.

In the lab, the research team for the new study added perchlorate to some desert dirt from Chile that was known to contain organics. Then they heated the soil up, mimicking the Viking landers' organics-detection test. They found the same two organic chlorine compounds the Vikings did: chloromethane and dichloromethane.

What's the connection between these three chemicals? Perchlorate becomes a strong oxidant when heated, breaking down naturally occurring organics into chloromethane and dichloromethane.

"Our results suggest that not only organics, but also perchlorate, may have been present in the soil at both Viking landing sites," the study's lead author, Rafael Navarro-Gonzez of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said in a statement.

"[Perchlorate] could sit there in the Martian soil with organics around it for billions of years and not break them down, but when you heat the soil to check for organics, the perchlorate destroys them rapidly," McKay said.

Challenging old theories
The new study, in the current issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research Planets, may inspire scientists to reconsider the results of the Viking mission.

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The Viking landers performed several different tests on Martian surface material in 1976. They found no compelling evidence for life, or even for the existence of organic molecules.

But subsequent studies have questioned what these tests actually showed. Researchers replicating Viking's methods on Earth, for example, failed to detect signs of life in Earth soil teeming with microbes.

More than three decades ago, the two Viking landers scooped up some Martian dirt and heated it to 500 degrees Celsius (932 degrees Fahrenheit). The chlorine compounds they found were interpreted at the time as contaminants from cleaning fluids.

"The lack of organics was a big surprise from the Vikings," McKay said. "But for 30 years we were looking at a jigsaw puzzle with a piece missing. Phoenix has provided the missing piece: perchlorate. The perchlorate discovery by Phoenix was one of the most important results from Mars since Viking."

Trying to resolve the question
Upcoming Mars missions and further work on meteorites from Mars could help resolve whether Viking actually found evidence of organics on the Red Planet.

Curiosity, a rover that NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission will deliver to Mars in 2012, will range far and wide, analyzing a broad range of rocks and dirt samples. Its instruments will check for organics in Martian dirt and powdered rocks by baking samples to even higher temperatures than Viking did and by using an alternative liquid-extraction method at much lower heat.

Combining these techniques on a range of samples may help test the new study's idea that heated-up perchlorates could have destroyed organics in the Viking tests.

The European-led ExoMars mission, set to launch in 2018, will include a rover with the ability to dig about 6.5 feet (2 meters) below the Martian surface. The chances of finding complex molecules, including evidence of life such as proteins, are better underground, where molecules are protected from harsh ultraviolet radiation.

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Photos: The greatest hits from Mars

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  1. The face of Mars

    The Hubble Space Telescope focuses on the full disk of Mars, with a head-on view of a dark feature known as Syrtis Major. Hubble astronomers could make out features as small as 12 miles wide. (AURA / STSCI / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Red, white and blue planet

    Two decades before Pathfinder, the Viking 1 lander sent back America's first pictures from the Martian surface. This 1976 picture shows off the lander's U.S. flag and a Bicentennial logo as well as the planet's landscape. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Grand canyon

    This is a composite of Viking orbiter images that shows the Valles Marineris canyon system. The entire system measures more than 1,875 miles long and has an average depth of 5 miles. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Red rover

    A mosaic of eight pictures shows the Pathfinder probe's Sojourner rover just after it rolled off its ramp. At lower right you can see one of the airbags that cushioned Pathfinder's landing on July 4, 1997. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Twin Peaks at their peak

    The Pathfinder probe focuses on Twin Peaks, two hills of modest height on the Martian horizon. Each peak rises about 100 feet above the surrounding rock-littered terrain. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Blue horizon

    A Martian sunset reverses the colors you'd expect on Earth: Most of the sky is colored by reddish dust hanging in the atmosphere, but the scattering of light creates a blue halo around the sun itself. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Two-faced Mars

    The image at left, captured by a Viking orbiter in the 1970s, sparked speculation that Martians had constructed a facelike monument peering into space. But the sharper image at right, sent back in 1998 by Mars Global Surveyor, spoiled the effect. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Put on a happy face

    The "Happy Face Crater" - officially named Galle Crater - puts a humorous spin on the "Face on Mars" controversy. This image was provided by the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A monster of a mountain

    Mars' highest mountain, an inactive volcano dubbed Olympus Mons, rises as high as three Everests and covers roughly the same area as the state of Arizona. Mars Global Surveyor took this wide-angle view. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Pockmarked moon

    Mars Global Surveyor snapped this picture of Phobos, the larger of Mars' two potato-shaped moons. Phobos' average width is just 14 miles. The image highlights Phobos' 6-mile-wide Stickney Crater. () Back to slideshow navigation
  11. From Mars with love

    This valentine from Mars, as seen by Mars Global Surveyor, is actually a pit formed by a collapse within a straight-walled trough known in geological terms as a graben. The pit spans 1.4 miles at its widest point. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Sandy swirls

    An image taken by Mars Global Surveyor shows a section of the northern sand dunes on Mars' surface. The dunes, composed of dark sand grains, encircle the north polar cap. (JPL / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Curls of clouds

    Global Surveyor focuses on a storm system over Mars' north polar region. The north polar ice cap is the white feature at the top center of the frame. Clouds that appear white consist mainly of water ice. Clouds that appear orange or brown contain dust. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Swiss cheese

    Global Surveyor captured images of a frost pattern at Mars' south polar ice cap that looks like Swiss cheese. The south polar cap is the only region on the Red Planet to contain such formations. (NASA / JPL / Malin Space Science) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Purple Planet

    A false-color image from the Opportunity rover, released Feb. 9, 2004, accentuates the differences between a green-looking slab of Martian bedrock and orange-looking spheres of rock. Scientists likened the "spherules" to blueberries embedded within and scattered around muffins of bedrock. The spherules are thought to have been created by the percolation of mineral-laden water through the bedrock layers. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Dunes of Mars

    A false-color view from NASA's Opportunity rover, released Aug. 6, 2004, shows the dune field at the bottom of Endurance Crater. The bluish tint indicates the presence of hematite-containing spherules ("blueberries") that accumulate on the flat surfaces of the crater floor. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Alien junkyard

    The Opportunity rover looks at its own heat shield, which was jettisoned during the spacecraft's descent back in January 2004, on Dec. 22, 2004. The main structure from the heat shield is at left, with additional debris and the scar left by the shield's impact to the right. The shadow of the rover's observation mast is visible in the foreground. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Devil on Mars

    This image shows a mini-whirlwind, also known as a dust devil, scooting across the plains inside Gusev Crater on Mars, as seen from the Spirit rover's hillside vantage point on April 18, 2005. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Rub al Khali

    The tracks of NASA's Opportunity rover are visible in a panoramic picture of a desolate, sandy stretch of Martian terrain in Meridiani Planum, photographed in May 2005 and released by NASA on July 28. "Rub al Khali" (Arabic for "Empty Quarter") was chosen as the title of this panorama because that is the name of a similarly barren, desolate part of the Saudi Arabian desert on Earth. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Double moons

    Taking advantage of extra solar energy collected during the day, NASA's Spirit rover spent a night stargazing, photographing the two moons of Mars as they crossed the night sky. The large bright moon is Phobos; the smaller one to its left is Deimos. (NASA / JPL / Cornell / Texas A&M) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Mars in the round

    A 360-degree panorama shows a stretched-out view of NASA's Spirit rover and its surroundings on the summit of Husband Hill, within Mars' Gusev Crater. The imagery for the panorama was acquired in August, and the picture was released on Dec. 5. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Fossil delta

    Scientifically, perhaps the most important result from use of the Mars Orbiter Camera on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor has been the discovery in November 2003 of a fossil delta located in a crater northeast of Holden Crater. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Underneath the ice

    This view taken in January 2005 shows sharp detail of a scarp at the head of Chasma Boreale, a large trough cut by erosion into the Martian north polar cap and the layered material beneath the ice cap. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Celestial celebration

    Controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., cheer on Friday after hearing that Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully made it into orbit around the Red Planet. (Phil McCarten / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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