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an image of what might be a worm fossil on Mars (NASA)

Proof of Life?

A photo taken on Mars might be evidence that life once existed there

By Karen Fanning | December 8 , 2008

If a picture is worth a thousand words, scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) may have stumbled upon a best-selling novel. A photograph suggests that there may have been life on Mars after all.

The photo, snapped by the Opportunity rover, shows a spiral shape that looks like a worm. Now, scientists are wondering whether this wormlike image is, in fact, a fossil. If so, it could be proof of Martian life.

Steve Gorevan's company, Honeybee Robotics, designed the drill bits for both the Opportunity and Spirit rovers. He recalled his reaction when he got his first glimpse of the photo.

"I came into the science room, and there was only one other person from NASA there," Gorevan told CNN. "She comes over, and we both just look at each other, and in our minds, we were saying, ‘Wow.' What occurred to me is that we were looking at a fossil."

Unfortunately, Opportunity is not able to study fossils, so the science team had no other option than to command the rover to go on to the next rock.

Chris McKay is an astrobiologist, or scientist who studies the effects of outer space on living organisms. He said much more proof is needed before we can declare that there was once life on Mars.

"Pictures by themselves, at that sort of scale, will never really be convincing evidence of life," McKay told CNN. "We need more direct chemical and biological tests."

a close up image of a possible worm fossil on mars
A closer view of the possible worm fossil discovered on Mars by the Opportunity rover. (Photo: NASA)

Phoenix Stops Communicating

In other Martian news, NASA reported Thursday that it has stopped trying to talk with the Phoenix Mars Lander. The solar-powered craft landed on Mars on May 25. Its last communication with NASA occurred on November 2.

For the past month, the space agency has checked in daily with the Phoenix Lander. All of NASA's attempts to hear its beep, however, have failed. Decreased hours of daily sunshine sapped Phoenix of the energy it needed to keep its batteries charged.

"The variability of the Martian weather was a contributing factor to our loss of communication, and we were hoping that another variation in weather might give us an opportunity to contact the Lander again," said Phoenix Mission Manager Chris Lewicki of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

In the end, the weather did not cooperate for NASA scientists, and they finally had to declare the Lander out of commission. Phoenix, however, had already done its duty. It reached all its science goals by the end of its original three-month mission.

MORE NEWS FROM OUTER SPACE

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About the Author

Karen Fanning is a contributing writer for Scholastic News Online.

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