NASA may have accidentally killed evidence of alien life on Mars in its first-ever experiment on the Red Planet, an expert has claimed.
The delicate forms of life that could have easily been over-watered or over-heated, according to Dirk Schulze-Makuch, a professor at the Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Technical University Berlin.
The US space agency sent two Viking landers to the surface of Mars in the 1970s with the hope of finding life on another planet.
An experiment found trace amounts of chlorinated organics, which was written off as contamination from Earth at the time.
Writing in BigThink, Makuch believes these organic compounds – while chlorinated – could have been misunderstood forms of life.
While we now know that organic matter, such as methane, does exist on Mars – human understanding was very different 50 years ago.
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During the Viking landings, scientists didn't understand the Martian environment like they do today.
Makuch, who is also an Adjunct Professor at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences Washington State University, explained: "Since Earth is a water planet, it seemed reasonable that adding water might coax life to show itself in the extremely dry Martian environment.
"In hindsight, it is possible that approach was too much of a good thing."
For example, microbes living inside salt rocks in the Atacama Desert, Chile – which has been likened to the Martian environment – do not need any rain at all, just a little moisture from the atmosphere, survive.
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"Now let’s ask what would happen if you poured water over these dry-adapted microbes," Makuch continued.
"Might that overwhelm them? In technical terms, we would say that we were hyperhydrating them, but in simple terms, it would be more like drowning them."
He likened it to humans needing water, but that the decision to put one in the middle of the ocean to "save it" obviously wouldn't work.
"Many of the Viking experiments involved applying water to the soil samples, which may explain the puzzling results," said Makuch.
Otherworldly microbes, such as hygroscopic salts, may have instead thrived on moisture from Martian fog but drowned under the pouring of water.
Another theory of Makuchs', shared by his German colleague Joop Houtkooper, is that microbial life on Mars might have hydrogen peroxide in their cells to let them draw water directly from the atmosphere.
However, when the instrument aboard the Viking used for detecting organic compounds heated up soil samples prior to analysis – it would have killed any cells of life that contained hydrogen peroxide.
More importantly, however, is that this process would have created large amounts of carbon dioxide, which is exactly what the instrument detected at the time.
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A study released in 2016 touted the same theory.
Experts from Arizona State University, Tempe, and the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, said the evidence collected by the Viking mission is "consistent with a biological explanation."
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