For Mars pro-life camp, an unlikely ally
By Richard Stenger
(CNN) -- NASA has posted on the Internet the results of an experiment that tested positive for life on Mars, despite having given little credence to the research for decades.
The unexpected action comes in the wake of renewed interest in the findings of planetary researcher Gilbert Levin, sparked by a recent re-examination of his data that detected more tantalizing hints of life on Mars.
An experiment conducted by twin Viking rovers at the behest of Levin in the 1970s offered evidence of microbes on the red planet. But other experiments tested negative and most scientists dismissed his results as the work of some unknown chemical reaction.
Months ago, however, Levin's experiment received a major boost when microbiologist Joe Miller announced that he had detected a circadian or daily rhythm in the readings, consistent with what one would expect if life as we know it were present.
"The data are truly intriguing and should regenerate much interest in the experiment," Miller said.
Most scientists, including the top brass at NASA, thought the original results were false positives. But weeks ago, in large part because of Miller's work, Levin's data wound up on a public NASA Web site to give researchers a chance to sift through the exhausting collection for themselves.
"We posted it because there's new public interest in the data. Although it was available, it was not easily accessible to the public," said Joe King, head of the National Space Science Data Center at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
Levin, a maverick researcher who has often run afoul of the NASA bureaucracy, welcomed what he considers a warming in relations with the agency.
"Certainly there is change," said Levin, now CEO of a biotechnology and information management firm called Spherix, which recently patented a sugar substitute called Tagatose.
"I'm impressed that NASA placed the data on the Web. It took a heck of a lot of work."
The site, located at NASA's Planetary Data System's Geosciences Node at Washington University in St. Louis, can expect plenty of visits from curious researchers. And from Miller:
"Now that all of the data has just become available, we plan to do a more detailed study, hopefully leading to a resolution of the ever-fascinating possibility of life on Mars."
The $1 billion Viking mission placed the most powerful landers ever on the surface of Mars in 1976. In Levin's so-called Labeled Release (LR) experiment, the Viking probes placed nutrients in Mars dirt samples and detected gas releases consistent with the metabolism of microorganisms.
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