WASHINGTON, Aug 7, 1996 (Reuter) - The next step in the search for life on Mars could be a trip to the ice fields of Antartica, according to a NASA scientist who studied a Martian meteorite that may prove the key to confirming the presence of extraterrestrial life.
Field collectors in the Antarctic unearthed a 4.5 billion-year-old meteorite from Mars that showed evidence of ancient, microscopic fossils, and Everett Gibson of NASA's Johnson Space Centre said on Wednesday these South Pole explorations could yield more good scientific specimens.
"The effort that's going on in the Antarctic field collecting programme is very modest ... but its returns have been outstanding," Gibson said, noting the programme had delivered more than 10,000 samples for scientists to study, without the prohibitive cost of a lunar or Mars mission.
"Perhaps these small field parties should be increased in their size and see to it that they go every year," Gibson said, noting that funding cuts could jeopardise such frequent trips.
There have been 12 known Martian rock samples culled from the Antarctic, including an unprepossessing chunk of grayish rock about the size of a potato that is the subject of a two-year study by scientists at NASA and Stanford University.
Gibson and others who studied the meteorite, known as ALH84001, said the simplest explanation for the seemingly organic fossils they saw under an electron microscope was the presence of life on Mars, but that this was yet to be proven.
Dan Goldin, chief of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, indicated his agency might help fund Antarctic field trips, in addition to launching 10 unstaffed space probes to study Mars in the next decade. The first two of these probes will cost $300 million each.
Both Goldin and President Bill Clinton pledged to continue an aggressive space-probe programme, with human exploration a real possibility in the not-so-distant future.
"This is an area where we have to decide, will robots do the task adequately, or do we have to send human beings? ... Maybe we'll move a lot faster than we have in the past," Goldin said at a briefing at NASA headquarters, along with Gibson and others involved in Mars research.
By the year 2001, Goldin said, the world space community may want to consider boring deep into the Martian surface and retrieving samples. He said he had talked with members of the world's space agencies and believed this could be "a worldwide mission."
Scientists focused on the possibility of life on Mars because of indications there was once liquid water on the planet, considered a requirement for living things. Now the planet's surface is dry, cold and considered uninhabitable, and the possible fossils in the meteorite could provide clues about how the planet changed.
"Mars is a very inhospitable place right now," NASA scientist David McKay said. "At some point in Mars' history, things went bad ... The question is, what happened to this early life (indicated by the putative fossil remains) when things went bad? And it is one view that that early life retreated underground and may still be there ... The only way we'll know is to go there."
Researchers believe the meteorite ALH84001 formed under the surface of Mars 4.5 billion years ago, when that planet was warmer and wetter. Between 3.6 billion and 4 billion years ago, water penetrated fractures in the rock, depositing carbonate materials.
The researchers said they believe living organisms may have been involved in the formation of the carbonate and some of the microscopic organisms may have fossilized in the rock, which was probably blasted off Mars 16 million years ago after the planet collided with a comet or asteroid.
The meteorite landed in the Antarctic some 13,000 years ago after floating in space for millions of years.
Original file name: .CNI - Mars.Next Stop Antarctic
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