Is There Life on Mars?

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WASHINGTON: Remember ALH84001? Of course you do. It's the chunk of 16-million-year-old Martian rock found in the Antarctic wastes last year over which everyone from NASA to the White House went ga-ga. Until now, prevailing scientific opinion said the worm-like forms on the potato-sized meteor meant there may have once been life on Mars — little green bacteria, if not little green men.

Now the forces of skepticism have gathered to burst everyone's bubble. In an article published Thursday in the journal Nature, dissenting scientists give it their best shot: Sorry, they say, we're afraid that what appear to be fossilized worms are really sheets of minerals viewed edge-on. In other words: it's not bugs; it's a geological feature. This new analysis "dramatically lessens the probability" of life on Mars, said J.P. Bradley, one of the report's co-authors.

Not that the NASA researchers are taking this lightly. Nature even took the unusual step of printing their rebuttal in the same issue. "There's a lot going on in the (scientific) community of trying to ‘shoot this down,’ " Everett Gibson, co-leader of the agency's asteroid team, told the Associated Press. He added that he was "more convinced than ever" of the fossil's authenticity. And so the debate continues to rage — to be settled, perhaps, only when the little green men come forward in person.