With NASA's Mars Pathfinder spacecraft less than three weeks away from its historic rendezvous with the Red Planet, where -- if all goes well -- it will land a small robotic rover, among other things, the debate over possible life on Mars continues at a high pitch.
The latest entry to the multi-sided argument comes from researcher Barry DiGregorio, who says textured rocks picked up from the shore of Lake Ontario could strengthen the case for life on Mars by weakening earlier theories about rocks photographed on the Red Planet. DiGregorio is an exhibit developer at the Buffalo Museum of Science with a degree in laboratory science technology.
The Earth rocks picked up by Barry DiGregorio bear a striking resemblance to the pictures of Martian rocks returned by the Viking space launches more than 20 years ago. So similar are they, DiGregorio and others say, that it is possible the two sets of rocks got their Swiss cheese-appearance in the same way -- by hungry little worms and clams burrowing their way through, millions of years ago.
The rocks he found and those photographed by the second Viking probe both exhibit tracks and trails like those left behind by multi-cell marine organisms. Like the Earth rocks, those photographed on the Red Planet appear to be sedimentary, meaning layers built up over time.
"They're just dead ringers for each other," said Dr. Gilbert Levin, a principal investigator on one of four life science experiments flown on the Viking missions.
Until now, most scientists concluded that the riddled Martian rocks were volcanic matter, textured by gases escaping the cooling lava.
"There are still a lot of people that hold very strongly that life on Mars is a nonsensical idea," said Dr. Richard Hoover, an astrophysicist at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. But he said more and more evidence is indicating otherwise.
"It might be one of the most exciting periods for the space program we've ever had," Hoover said. He is chairing a conference of the International Society for Optical Engineering July 29-August 1, the topic of which is how to proceed in future searches for extraterrestrial life.
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