Fossils from Mars – are astrobiologists avoiding the ‘awkward issue’ ?
Science writer and editor at the Washington Post, Marc Kaufman placed the institutionalising and expansion of modern astrobiology as starting with NASA’s 1996 announcement of evidence for life from the Mars meteorite ALH84001. Yet none of the invited lectures covering the oldest terrestrial rocks or reviewer introductions on biofossils in Sessions 2-3 even touched on this event.
Of course the 1996 paper of David McKay’s team was hotly debated and contested
at the time, and spawned a lot of further research. Yet questions at Origins2011 showed leaders in the research areas had not considered McKay et al’s 2009/10 reappraisal**, which disproved several criticisms and largely confirmed the presence of biofossils and biomorphs in ALH84001 and other meteorites from Mars.
Kaufman himself reported the May 2010 NASA-sponsored conference on astrobiology
which featured the “new evidence that meteorites from Mars contain ancient fossils”.
“We feel more confident than ever that Mars probably once was, and maybe still is, home to life,” said team leader David McKay. The Mars meteorite “discovery” has remained an unresolved and somewhat awkward issue, Kaufman wrote. This has
continued even though the team’s central finding — that Mars once had living creatures – has gained broad acceptance among the biologists, chemists, geologists, astronomers and other scientists who make up the astrobiology community.
At the Origins2011 Outreach Panel (OP4), Kaufman was surely helpful in gently chiding the conference over this awkward ‘unmentionable’, rather than facing it as a unresolved and challenging issue. for astrobiology science.
The organisers should surely take the hint in Kaufman’s no acknowledgement to Origins2011 in his post-conference article Quest for Life takes new twists. Scientist in many fields provide tools – and evidence – that our universe could be alive (Sunday 10 July).