When it comes to NASA, I go by the maxim “Not A Straight Answer”, which I followed since 1977 when NASA denied finding life via the Viking Landers.
And I’m not going to mention The Face on Mars, that’s a totally different subject altogether.
So when they announced November 29th, 2010 there was a big to-do that would affect astrobiology, well, I went ho-hum.
But as usual, my natural nosiness won out and I started keeping track of the mainstream news feeds spewing the propaganda just on the off chance there was something to this:
Science fans across the Internet are eagerly awaiting an announcement from NASA’s astrobiology team planned for Thursday. All NASA will say about the press conference is that it will “discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.”
Evidence of Life on Mars?
While many are hoping that NASA will announce that extraterrestrial life has been discovered, this seems like a near impossibility. If this were the case, the best prospect for this might be from Mars. The Exploration Rover Spirit has been stationary for just about a year after getting stuck in some soft sand. That would give it an opportunity to study that patch of sand over a long period of time, during which it might perceive chemical changes attributable to life processes. It’s a long shot at best, but remember that in the spot where it is stuck, Spirit was looking at layered sulfate salts associated with ancient thermal vents that could have been a prime location for bacterial life at some point in the Red Planet’s distant past.
A New Chemical Basis for Life?
More likely is that a group of NASA astrobiologists has discovered a chemical model for life based on something other than oxygen and water. Such a discovery might open up the number of potential sites where extraterrestrial life might be found and would be a major breakthrough in the field. Looking at the team of scientists that NASA lists as attending the press conference, perhaps we can gain some further insight.
Dr. James Elser
The biography of Dr. James Elser at his Arizona State University webpage, describes his work as “the study of balance of energy and multiple chemical elements in living systems.” His inclusion might suggest an exotic chemical basis for life is being announced.
Dr. Stephen Benner
Dr. Stephen Benner. A professor of Molecular Cell Biology at the University of Florida, Gainesville, describes his work in astrobiology as working “to identify molecular structures that are likely to be universal features of living systems regardless of their genesis, and not likely products of non-biological processes… As part of the team defining the architecture of the Mars landing missions, the Benner group will have the opportunity to test these as part of a search for life on Mars.” This might lend some credence to the notion that the press conference will announce evidence of past life on Mars.
Dr. Pamela Conrad
NASA’s Pamela Conrad has co-authored “The Bread-crumb trail: distribution of organic chemical biosignatures from cryptoendolithic communities on the surfaces of Arctic and Antarctic sandstone rocks.” This again would support the idea that evidence of past life may have been discovered in the Martial soils.
Dr. Felisa (IronLisa) Wolfe-Simon
Dr. Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the U.S. Geological Survey, also working with the NASA astrobiology team, says on her website that she is working “as part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute we are examining arsenate-rich environments to hunt and enrich cultures for organisms utilizing arsenate in novel and unique modes.” She also mentions that this work involves Dr. Stephen Benner. Her inclusion strongly suggests that a chemical model for arsenic based life has been discovered, and perhaps, in looking at the other specialties involved, they have found a way of identifying unique chemical signatures left by this type of organism that would rule out non-living origins for these materials. This would provide a new way to search for signs of life on other planets.
Dr. Mary Voytek
The team leader is NASA’s Dr. Mary Voytek. NASA says her work is in the area of “environmental controls on microbial transformations of nutrients, xenobiotics, and metals in freshwater and marine systems.” This might support the idea of a new identifiable chemical signature which might be left behind by certain types of bacterial or prebiotic life.
The Best Guess about the NASA astrobiology announcement
My guess, and it is only a guess, is that a new chemical basis for life has been modeled resulting in the discovery of a unique chemical signature that, if found in an extraterrestrial rock (or a terrestrial rock, for that matter), would be a smoking gun for the past presence of this type of life. Perhaps, they have even actually found such evidence, either with a visual examination of martial soils by the rovers, or in meteorite fragments found in the arctic.
I won’t be able to listen to NASA’s news conference at 2:00 p.m. today, but hopefully I can get the gist of it later on tonight.
Maybe NASA will prove me wrong this time.