A small meteorite named ALH84001 that was found in the mid 1980's in Antarctica was analyzed carefully years later; surprisingly chemical tests indicated evidence for possible past life on Mars. With such an announcement pending, the researchers had all they could do to prevent a gushing leak of the sensational news.
Two past missions to Mars had indicated there was no life. The 1965 Mariner Orbiter found that there were dry stream beds but no canals, thought to exist by earlier scientists. Canals suggested engineering works by a race of intelligent Martians. In 1976 the Viking Lander's search for life came up empty. The Vikings found positive chemical reactions that weren't life, but scientists didn't know what they were.
The Friday before Easter 1996, scientists sent their findings to Science. After reviewing the findings for three months, the editors at Science agreed to publish the findings. Daniel Goldin, an administrator for NASA, found himself in the Oval Office at 8:30 in the morning, briefing President Clinton on the findings. They tried to keep the news a secret from the press while they prepared a conference for scientists to attend. In early August, news began to leak, causing the conference to be moved up a week. The announcement stirred up a sensation all over the world. Bookies in London lessened the likelihood of life elsewhere in the universe from 500 - 1 down to 25 - 1. Scientists said meteorite ALH84001, could be considered to be like the Rosetta Stone, which revealed the mysteries of ancient cultures.
Photo. Two close-up views of ALH84001. Courtesy of NASA.
Ralph Harvey, a scientist who headed the meteorite missions in Antarctica, is somewhat of a skeptic. Harvey thinks there is a chance that the hydrocarbonates formed when there was too much heat for life to exist. Maybe we will find more evidence with the Pathfinder and Surveyor missions to Mars. Carl Sagan's comment on the possibility of life on Mars was quite succinct: "Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence."
Mission to Mars. An educational site created for the ThinkQuest contest.