Is There Life on Mars? The Story of the Search for Life on Mars

You know what would be exciting? Finding life on Mars. What is the best evidence we’ve seen for life on the Red Planet?

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Team: Fraser Cain – @fcain / [email protected]
Karla Thompson – @karlaii
Chad Weber – [email protected]

Perhaps the most important question we can possible ask is, “are we alone in the Universe?”.

And so far, the answer has been, “I don’t know”. I mean, it’s a huge Universe, with hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way, and now we learn there are trillions of galaxies in the Universe.

Is there life closer to home? What about in the Solar System?

There are a few existing places we could look for life close to home. Really any place in the Solar System where there’s liquid water. Wherever we find water on Earth, we find life, so it make sense to search for places with liquid water in the Solar System.

I know, I know, life could take all kinds of wonderful forms. Enlightened beings of pure energy, living among us right now. Or maybe space whales on Titan that swim through lakes of ammonia. Beep boop silicon robot lifeforms that calculate the wasted potential of our lives.

Sure, we could search for those things, and we will. Later. We haven’t even got this basic problem done yet. Earth water life? Check! Other water life? No idea.

It turns out, water’s everywhere in the Solar System. In comets and asteroids, on the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn, especially Europa or Enceladus.

Or you could look for life on Mars.

Mars is similar to Earth in many ways, however, it’s smaller, has less gravity, a thinner atmosphere. And unfortunately, it’s bone dry. There are vast polar caps of water ice, but they’re frozen solid.

There appears to be briny liquid water underneath the surface, and it occasionally spurts out onto the surface.

Because it’s close and relatively easy to explore, it’s been the place scientists have gone looking for past or current life.

Researchers tried to answer the question with NASA’s twin Viking Landers, which touched down in 1976. The landers were both equipped with three biology experiments. The researchers weren’t kidding around, they were going to nail this question: is there life on Mars?

In the first experiment, they took soil samples from Mars, mixed in a liquid solution with organic and inorganic compounds, and then measured what chemicals were released.

In a second experiment, they put Earth organic compounds into Martian soil, and saw carbon dioxide released.

In the third experiment, they heated Martian soil and saw organic material come out of the soil.

Three experiments, and stuff happened in all three. Stuff! Pretty exciting, right? Unfortunately, there were equally plausible non-biological explanations for each of the results. The astrobiology community wasn’t convinced, and they still fight in brutal cage matches to this day.

It was ambitious, but inconclusive. The worst kind of conclusive.

Researchers found more inconclusive evidence in 1994. Ugh, there’s that word again.

They were studying a meteorite that fell in Antarctica, but came from Mars, based on gas samples taken from inside the rock.

They thought they found evidence of fossilized bacterial life inside the meteorite. But again, there were too many explanations for how the life could have gotten in there from here on Earth. Life found a way… to burrow into a rock from Mars.

NASA learned a powerful lesson from this experience. If they were going to prove life on Mars, they had to go about it carefully and conclusively, building up evidence that had no controversy.

The Spirit and Opportunity Rovers were an example of building up this case cautiously. They were sent to Mars in 2004 to find evidence of water. Not water today, but water in the ancient past. Old water Over the course of several years of exploration, both rovers turned up multiple lines of evidence there was water on the surface of Mars in the ancient past.

They found concretions, tiny pebbles containing iron-rich hematite that forms on Earth in water. They found the mineral gypsum; again, something that’s deposited by water on Earth.

NASA’s Curiosity Rover took this analysis to the next level, arriving in 2012 and searching for evidence that water was on Mars for vast periods of time; long enough for Martian life to evolve.