Ancient meteorite may point to life on Mars
'Biggest discovery in the history of science'
August 7, 1996
Web posted at: 1:15 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- NASA announced Wednesday that a primitive
form of microscopic life may have existed on Mars about
4 billion years ago.
The announcement was made in Washington at a news
conference to discuss the findings, made by researchers from
NASA and various universities.
Before the news conference, a source close to the agency
CNN, "I think it's arguably the biggest discovery
the history of science."
NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin had said Tuesday the
research is based on a sophisticated examination
of an ancient Martian meteorite, labeled Allan Hills or
ALH 84001, that landed on Earth about 13,000 years ago. The
meteorite was found in Antarctica in 1984.
Researchers examining the rock from space say it contains
organic compounds that are unmistakable evidence that life
once existed on the red planet.
"I want everybody to know that we are not talking about
'little green men,'
" Goldin said. "These are extremely small,
single-cell structures that somewhat resemble bacteria on
Earth. There is no evidence or suggestion that any higher
life form ever existed on Mars."
The scientists will publish their findings in the August
16 issue of Science magazine. NASA's research was sponsored
by the Johnson Space Center in Texas.
Scientists hail the possibilities
"It means a lot," astronomer Richard Berendzen of American
University told CNN.
"It means a long-lost discovery, a thing that astronomers
have been looking for for decades." (341K AIFF or WAV sound)
Astronomer and author Carl Sagan, who has studied the
possibility of extraterrestrial life and investigated the
origins of life on Earth, called the discovery "glorious."
"The chance of independently arriving at the same kind of
life on two independent planets is very small. That is one of
the great excitements -- to see what two different planets,
how their evolutionary history proceeds," he said.
(265K AIFF or WAV sound)
Collision brought meteorite to Earth
Scientists believe the meteorite was blasted away from Mars
by the impact of asteroids, and landed on Earth. It is the
oldest of the 12 Martian meteorites discovered on Earth.
Scientists who have studied the meteorite say it bears
chemical markers that may be evidence of biological activity.
However, other scientists said the markers are far from
A source at NASA told CNN the meteorite shows a bacterial
form which he described as "looking like little maggots."
Martian life forms may still exist
NASA scientists doubt that anything is currently alive on
Mars, but they're not dismissing the idea. Mars today is in
an Ice Age.
If the meteorite found in Antarctica is billions of years
old, it dates from the earliest days of Mars, at the time the
Scientists say it is probable that Mars was very hot in the
beginning. As it cooled, it is possible the very basic
elements of life formed there.
There's evidence of water and volcanoes on Mars -- and that
combination means at some point there probably were organisms
living deep underground in hydrothermal vents, similar to the
geysers at Yellowstone National Park, scientists say.
"So if life can exist under the ground on Earth, maybe it can
exist under the ground on Mars, too," said Paul Davies of the
University of Adelaide in Australia.
Davies said life forms that began on Mars billions of years
ago may have taken cover deep below the Martian surface, and
might even still be living there. The life forms could have
gone underground as permafrost or may be contained in the
planet's ice caps.
"I think there's a reasonable possibility that we will find
something on the next NASA mission to Mars," Jack Farmer
of NASA said.
Pathfinder, the next NASA mission to Mars, is scheduled for
launch late this year but won't be able to dig deep enough to
search for current or former life below the Martian surface.
NASA says such a probe is at least 10 years away.
Correspondent Ann Kellan, reporter Jim Slade and The
contributed to this report.
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