Does ET really exist?
A study of the alleged “Martian” meteorite
On August 7th, 1996, NASA (America's National Space and Aeronautics Administration) made a surprise announcement that was quickly reported throughout the world. Almost every news service, national and local news program, newspaper, and talk show soon discussed this “discovery of the century.” Scientists throughout the world have been accepting hasty media interviews on the subject and excitedly saying some very foolish things—without actually having read the research papers. Some would have us believe that man evolved from these “seeds” blown from a distant planet. Others boldly say we now know that the whole universe is populated with living creatures of every description.
Has the existence of extraterrestrial life finally been proven?
Certainly not, here are the facts.
Discovering life on another planet is the “Holy Grail” of many modern scientists. Annually, millions of dollars are spent on the search. Year after year, absolutely no evidence has been found. Now that this unusual meteorite has been examined, these scientists have a tiny shred of evidence of a tiny bacteria—but the slimmest, weakest, most insubstantial of evidences. One wonders if the purpose of this announcement was more than anything else, another attempt by NASA to reap more taxpayer money. NASA has been doing a lot of public relations publicity recently—on the airwaves, the Internet, and in Congress—trying to justify their huge budget for extraterrestrial exploration and ignite the public's imagination and support.
[To read our answer on the biblical position on the
possibility of extraterrestrial life, click here.]
What was actually found?
Since 1969, when the first meteorite was picked up in frozen Antarctica, researchers have annually returned to collect more specimens. One of these rocks, found in 1984, was recently examined in painstaking detail using one of the world's finest electron microscopes and the world's most sensitive mass spectrometer. This igneous rock weighs about 4.5-pounds and is about the size of a potato. The researchers involved claim that this meteorite landed in Antarctica 13,000 years ago, leaving us with evidence of bacteria dead for some 4.5 million years. [All of the age estimates in this story are based on questionable Evolutionary theories. We highly doubt their accuracy.]
Although many people following this story have made the leap from single-celled bacteria to intelligent life forms, please note that no living animals, plants or people were discovered. Nor were some tiny petrified single-celled creatures discovered displaying to the microscope their cell structure. What has been found are elements and chemicals common on Earth. The scientists' case relies heavily on chemistry and is rather complex. The supposition is that these materials could have been left behind by the decay and/or burning of tiny bacteria that once lived in water in the fractures and pores of the rock. In reality, every chemical found in this rock could have been created by natural processes that don't involve life. Some could also conceivably have been produced by Earth organisms.
Summary of evidence
A MARTIAN ROCK? Found in an Antarctic ice field, the research team involved is confident that the meteorite in question (Identification #ALH84001) is an igneous rock from the crust of Mars. Why? The supposed 4.5 billion year old gases trapped inside the rock's tiny pores reportedly match today's atmosphere on Mars extremely well—as measured by the Viking Lander (argon-36, argon-40, xenon, krypton, neon, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, etc.).
Is this Martian identification a sure thing? No, there are certainly indications that the identification is correct, but it is not a certainty. To be ejected from Mars gravity, the rock would have to have reached a speed more than five times the muzzle velocity of a hunting rifle. Some very large objects have obviously hit Mars, so this is not impossible. The sun's gravity would draw an object like this in our direction. At any rate, the amounts of gas involved are small, and various assumptions have been made in guessing this volcanic rock's history. Mars may well have been the original source of this rock, but some would like to see more definitive proof. If the rock was blown off Mars, the fractures (in which these bacteria supposedly grew and formed) seem more likely to have been produced by the impact that shot the rock off the planet.
HOW OLD?!? These scientists are claiming that this volcanic rock crystallized from molten lava 4.5 billion years ago. Not long after, it is supposed to somehow have become infested with bacteria. Then the rock got blasted off the planet by a huge comet or asteroid impact with enough force to escape Mars gravity. Next, it floated in space for 16 million years (based on cosmic ray exposure data), and then landed on Earth 13,000 years ago.
THE EVIDENCE INSIDE THE METEORITE. According to NASA's David S. McKay, it is only the fact that the following four items were found together in one location that suggests life was once present in the rock.
CARBONATE GLOBULES. These are extremely tiny, generally disc-shaped globules of orange-colored carbonate [see picture on right] (virtually identical to the main ingredient in your antacid tablets—calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate). The largest of these globules is less than 1/100 the diameter of a human hair. Most are 1/1000 that size. They were found along fresh fractures and in pore spaces in the rock. The globules were possibly formed at high temperatures - some 700o C. The scientists' eye of faith can see sausage-shaped microfossils on and within these globules—shapes that somewhat resemble certain supposed “fossils” of microorganisms on Earth. The supposed “fossils” in the meteorite are only 100 millionths of a millimeter in length. It may be important to note that various supposed Precambrian microfossils on Earth have been disproven or brought into serious question. These supposed “nanobacteria” are very tiny things, controversial, and difficult to interpret—even in Earth's rocks. Also, the research team involved was divided on how these globules formed, whether at very high temperature or not. High temperature would make their proposition more unlikely. Proponents hope that the globules can be explained by formation in water under lower temperatures.
Although carbonates are sometimes produced by living creatures, as in our oceans, they can also be formed when a lot of carbon dioxide is dissolved in water causing carbonates to precipitate out. British research, Ian Franchi (Open University) says that spheres of carbonate tend to form on Antarctic rocks after they have been removed from the severe cold. The meteorite research team's rebuttal to this argument is that some of the carbonate spheres are cracked. They say most likely happened when the meteorite struck Earth.
After further research, geophysicists in Hawaii published strong evidence that these carbonate globules are NOT fossils or the result of any biologic processes. Rather they crystalized from shock-melted materials. That is, materials exposed to intense radiation and/or intense heat such as would occur as a meteorite entered Earth's atmosphere. [Edward R.D. Scott, Akira Yamaguchi, and Alexander N. Krot, “Petrological Evidence for Shock Melting of Carbonates in the Martian Meteorite ALH84001,” Nature, Vol. 387 (1997), pp. 377-379.]
HYDROCARBONS—“abundant” but “relatively simple” polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in these “fresh fracture surfaces” (The rock breaks relatively easily.). These PAHs were in highest concentration around the globules and are thus assumed to be related to them.
NOTE: These hydrocarbons are produced when molecules containing carbon are heated to high temperatures. They are found throughout the Earth—and apparently throughout the universe. By themselves, PAHs are definitely not a reliable indicator of life.
MAGNETITE and IRON SULFIDES—fine-grained magnetic iron oxide (magnetite) and iron sulfides “similar in size and structure” to those produced by Earth's bacteria. These were found in surface textures and internal structures of selected carbonate globules.
NOTE: Magnetite is a magnetic compound of iron and oxygen that can be found in bacteria and many other living creatures and left behind after they die. The vast bulk of magnetite is formed inorganically. Iron sulfide is similar. Life is not required to form either of these compounds. However, magnetite forms in oxygen, while iron sulfide forms where there is no oxygen. Therefore, researchers believe that finding these two elements together suggests an organic source.
The researchers concluded their Science magazine article by saying that "although there are alternative explanations for each of these phenomena taken individually, when they are considered collectively, particularly in view of their spatial association, we conclude that they are evidence for primitive life on earthly Mars."
Did these materials get into the rock through contamination on Earth?
The scientists involved say it is unlikely because:
The frozen meteorite was handled carefully in transport to the lab and examined using contamination procedures.
The meteorite "appears to be essentially free of terrestrial weathering."
The meteorite is sterile.
No PAHs were found on the surface of the rock. The concentration PAHs increased deeper inside. (Consistent with the rock having burned on the surface as it sped through Earth's atmosphere. Possibly inconsistent with its having been contaminated while on Earth.)
"Some of the carbonate globules were shock-faulted. This shock event occurred on Mars or in space, and thus rules out a terrestrial origin for the globules."
"The isotopic composition of the carbon and oxygen associated with the carbonate globules also indicates that they are indigenous to the meteorite and were not formed during its 13,000-year residence in the Antarctic environment."
Measurements obtained from the carbonate are interpreted as consistent with having been formed in the high CO2 atmosphere of Mars.
Are these materials clear indicators of prior life in this rock? Definitely not. Finding all four items together was merely suggestive of life, not a proof. As the researchers involved admitted, the presence of these materials (even altogether) could be explained by natural, inorganic processes. The research team also agreed that some of the material could have been deposited in the rock on Earth by living things or natural processes. Although Antarctica is harsh, there is life. Scientists never cease to be amazed at its tenacity and ability to surive incredibly harsh conditions. The research team claimed that these explanations were unlikely based on their inability to come up with a fully viable explanation for all of the evidence—based on what they believed to be true about Antarctica and its past.
The director of the Institute of Meteoritics (University of New Mexico), Jim Papike (a geochemist), revealed that the rock failed a key test for biological activity. When pyrite is subjected to bacteria the ratio of its sulfur istopes (32 and 34) change. "We wanted to know if these pyrites in Martian rocks would show this fingerprint of life that would be indicated by a specific type of ratio," says Papike. "When we looked at the ratio, there was no evidence that it was in a ratio for life forms." [For details, see Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, a scientific journal]
In the final analysis, extraterrestrial life researchers need to find something a lot more definitive than these materials in a rock to prove the existence of life on Mars. They need to find something like DNA or cells or tracks—something that can only come from living things—and they must link the find much more firmly to its source of origin. There is still no proof that any life ever existed on Mars or any other planet. In fact, all of the planets (except Earth) are highly inhospitable to life with vastly different atmospheres, concentrated poison gases, horrendous temperatures, deathly gravities, and the like.
Not unexpectedly, NASA has busily been spending millions (perhaps billions) of dollars to send a series of space craft to Mars. In one masterful stroke, they put Mars exploration on the front burner. Sometime after 1997, they intend to land the Mars Pathfinder on the Martian landscape to search for clearer evidences of past life. Of course, the robotic vehicle will not be capable of actually seeing nanobacteria or tiny fossils. The much-touted mission will merely try to determine if there are Martian rocks that could conceivably contain fossils. Previous missions have found nothing but absolute sterility. It is not until well after 2000 that a mission may be able to return rocks to Earth.
To our knowledge, the only life in the universe was created on this beautiful and abundantly provided for planet we call Earth.
Author: Paul S. Taylor of Christian Answers
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Photos courtesy of NASA.
For those who want a more full, technically detailed description of the evidence written by the research team, see Science magazine article: David S. McKay, Everett K. Gibson, Jr., Kathie L. Thomas-Keprta, et al, “Search for Past Life on Mars: Possible Relic Biogenic Activity In Martian Meteorite ALH84001,” Science (August 16, 1996).