Did Viking Find Life on Mars?

by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell on April 21, 2012
Featured in News to Know

Did Viking find life on Mars?

A review of data from the 1976 Viking mission suggests unmanned Mars rovers really did find evidence of life. Admittedly, not the sort of sentient life conjured up by C. S. Lewis in Out of the Silent Planet, but maybe some microbial biochemical factories nonetheless. Dr. Gilbert Levin believes Viking was “The most remarkable unmanned mission ever” and doesn’t want space historians to neglect its discoveries when the final chapter on Martian life is written.

“Twenty or thirty years from now, when the economy permits NASA to rise again,” Levin says, “there will be missions to Mars, and they will find life, and they will take credit for it and not mention Viking at all.” Dr. Levin developed Viking’s “Labeled Release” experiment to detect evidence of life and has since spent decades analyzing the data. (He originally named his experiment “Gulliver” in honor of the Lilliputian organisms it was designed to detect.)1

Levin and colleagues have again reviewed all the Viking data, and their analysis, just published in the International Journal of Aeronautical and Space Sciences, still maintains there is strong evidence of “a robust biological response.”2 They write, “The complexity pattern . . . strongly suggests biology.”3 They believe the results of the “Labeled Release” radioisotope microbe detection tests, which suggested the presence of living organisms, were erroneously written off.

The Labeled Release recipe consisted of Martian dirt samples mixed with radioactively tagged organic nutrients and a drop of water. If the air above the mixture subsequently contained tagged metabolic gases (like carbon dioxide or methane), then scientists were to assume living microbes had metabolized the nutrients. As a control, a separate mixture was zapped with enough heat to kill anything that might be alive. The experiment actually did produce positive results suggesting microbes lived in Martian dirt.

So why did NASA ignore those results? Other experiments failed to corroborate the evidence. For instance, Viking found no evidence of organic compounds in the soil. Living organisms are expected to produce some sort of organics. Therefore, the astrobiologists of the day decided to err on the side of caution and assume there was some other explanation for the results.

Levin anticipates the Curiosity, currently en route to Mars with more sophisticated equipment, will find those elusive organic compounds in the soil. (See “News to Note, November 26, 2011” for a discussion of the tests Curiosity carries.)

Of course finding organic compounds would not necessarily mean living things are present, as organic compounds appear to be present even in interstellar dust and lifeless meteorites.

Of course finding organic compounds would not necessarily mean living things are present, as organic compounds appear to be present even in interstellar dust and lifeless meteorites. But if the microbial life suggested by “Gulliver” is confirmed, Levin—who has been involved with the project since 1958—wants to be sure Viking gets its place in the sun. He says, “The stories increasingly omit any mention of Viking. I think Viking should be lauded rather than ignored.”

According to a developer of the new generation of instruments now being sent to Mars, Paul Mahaffy, “Life on Earth means water, energy and the complexity of carbon chemistry. We'll be looking for all of the above, but with a special emphasis on the complexity.”4 It is just such biological complexity Levin’s team detected in the original Viking data.

The Bible does not say God didn’t create life elsewhere, but the Bible does tell us God created all life on Earth during the first six days of Creation week about 6,000 years ago. And on the fourth day of that week, God records He created the sun, moon, and stars. Scientists have never observed life evolve from non-living components, and the Bible records God’s orderly creation of many kinds of living things without either millions of years or molecules-to-man evolution.

The driving force behind the urgent search for extra-terrestrial life for much of the scientific community is the desire to validate evolutionary ideas. Yet if life were to be indisputably found on another world, its existence would not prove molecules-to-man evolution ever occurred. Such life would simply be another demonstration of God’s creative power to create life where He chooses.

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  1. Gilbert V. Levin, “Mars Research,” http://gillevin.com/mars.htm.
  2. Giorgio Bianciardi, Joseph D. Miller, Patricia Ann Straat, and Gilbert V. Levin, “Complexity Analysis of the Viking Labeled Release Experiments,” IJASS 13, no 1 (March 2012): 14–26, http://ijass.org/PublishedPaper/year_abstract.asp?idx=132.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Michael Schirber, “How Curiosity Will Study Building Blocks of Life on Mars,” NBC News, December 6, 2011, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/45573437/ns/technology_and_science-space/t/how-curiosity-will-study-building-blocks-life-mars/.


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