What Britain’s newspaper The Guardian called a circus started at 2:09 p.m. EST on February 16, when Space.com broke what it billed as an exclusive: “NASA Researchers Claim Evidence of Present Life on Mars.” The Web news service reported that two scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center had found “strong evidence that life may exist today on Mars, hidden away in caves and sustained by pockets of water.” The report went on to say the pair, Carol Stoker and Larry Lemke, had submitted a paper to the British scientific journal Nature that was undergoing peer review. It cautioned that there was no direct evidence involved but rather signs of possible biological activity, including methane signatures “remarkably similar to those recently discovered in caves here on Earth.”
The report touched off an international media frenzy. In less than three hours, UPI had picked up the story, and it soon became repeated regularly on all-news stations like CNN. The next day newspapers around the world trumpeted it. “Better Red Than Dead: Team Finds Mars Life Signs” shouted the New York Post. “Martians Do Exist” blared a paper in northern Australia.
But was it true? On February 18, concerned NASA officials took the unusual step of issuing a press release calling Space.com’s story a “false claim” not supported by any observational data. “The work by the scientists mentioned in the reports cannot be used to directly infer anything about life on Mars,” NASA said, “but may help formulate the strategy for how to search for Martian life.” Further, the agency said the two scientists had not submitted a paper to Nature. Meanwhile, Space.com posted a second report to clarify some details in the first, but it didn’t back down. “We stand by our story,” says Anthony Duignan-Cabrera, Space.com’s managing editor.
NASA declined further comment and said that Stoker and Lemke were unavailable to the press. “They’re being cautious,” Duignan-Cabrera says, “because they don’t want a repeat of the rush to judgment that happened with the Mars meteorite,” which was purported to show signs of fossil life that were later disproved. “The assertion that there is the possibility that even the simplest form of life could exist on another planet is a huge statement,” Duignan-Cabrera says. “It really changes the focus of humanity’s role on the planet and in the universe.”