Science and Society

Will There Be Life on Mars?

August 15, 2012

Multiple Pages
Will There Be Life on Mars?

While the world had its eyes trained on London’s Olympics, a great many were staring at the planet Mars. On August 5, workers at the JPL’s Mars Science Laboratory breathed a sigh of relief. Despite the “Seven Minutes of Terror,” during which the Curiosity rover had to make its descent to the Red Planet after losing contact with Pasadena, the one-ton mobile robot performed exactly as hoped for without a glitch. In minutes images were being transmitted across space and the president congratulated the team.

Curiosity’s appointed two-year mission is to gather evidence that conditions supportive of life once existed on Mars. Its chosen landing spot is at the base of a mountain in the middle of a crater, itself apparently flooded at one time—thus providing a mini-catalogue of Martian geological history. If all goes as planned, the sophisticated battery of laboratory tests aboard will answer all sorts of questions about the planet’s past—and possibly its future, since test results may also shed some light on terraforming possibilities.

“The angry Red Planet has captivated man’s mind for as long as we can trace myths.”

The new robot joins a number of still functioning American hardware surveying Mars. Although its twin Spirit has at last bit the Martian dust after a long and successful run, the Opportunity rover soldiers on, years past its sell-by date. Meanwhile, a small flotilla of satellites continues to survey the surface from space and will be joined in 2014 by MAVEN, an orbiter that will examine the planet’s atmosphere in an attempt to see how (and if) the water and air from the distant past escaped—and presumably how more could be kept on hand should any attempt be made to restore former conditions. Our European and Russian friends’ space agencies are also hard at work, planning missions that will search for organic molecules and bring Martian soil back home. Yet to be determined is whether there will be a first manned mission to Mars and resulting colonization.

For many of us down here below, the idea of blowing billions on such schemes when our finances are so rocky seems at first glance little more than insane. Considering the various social, political, and cultural ills that afflict us and every other nation, it is hard to see how any right-thinking person could possibly support further Martian exploration.

But apart from the technological advance that every space mission seems to bring (what we learned from Curiosity’s “sky crane” will bear all sorts of real-world fruit), this entire hubbub is about Mars. Mars! The angry Red Planet has captivated man’s mind for as long as we can trace myths. In Chinese astrology, Mars is linked to fire. Mars was the Roman god of war, and the Hindus called Mars “Mangala” after their own war god. In keeping with this…er…martial tradition, Dante peoples the heaven of Mars with holy warriors. 

Astronomers—most notably Percival Lowell—believed they saw an intelligently made planet-wide network of canals, proof that Mars was home to a race of sufficient technological skill to pull off such an engineering miracle. Right up until Mariner 9 took up orbit in 1971, a rapidly diminishing crowd among mainstream scientists held out hope that some kind of intelligent life might yet be found on Mars. Despite the dashed hopes produced by Mariner’s disproving the canal hypothesis, the satellite began unveiling Mars’s complex surface.

What we think we know now is as exciting a tale as any born of Lowell’s observations—of a once Earthlike planet that somehow became much colder and mysteriously lost most of its surface water and atmosphere. Where did those key elements go? Were they leached into space, or do they persist in a frozen state, awaiting the Sleeping Beauty kiss of planetary warming to return Mars to its former glory? Is this change permanent, or is there some long-term cycle at work? Above all, did the planet once—or perhaps, somehow, does it still—harbor life, as an Antarctic meteorite tantalizingly suggests?

We should try to answer these questions, partly because it might benefit life on Earth and partly because we might one day be able to more profitably make use of our sister planet. Certainly an overwhelming success with Curiosity may force Obama’s hand in approving future missions to Mars.

But there is more to it than that. As with the Olympics—but in a more objectively useful manner—space exploration is something that can unite people. We have precious little of that today. It may well be that someday Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles will be accurate in one respect: Our descendants will be the Martians.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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