Oct 04 2019

Mission To Find Life On Mars

The next NASA rover to Mars, the Mars 2020 Rover (final name to be determined), launches next July. It will arrive at Mars in February 2021. This is the next iteration of rover design and has some interesting new features, include a drone that can fly around to survey more of the Martian surface.

But perhaps the feature that is getting the most attention is the drill. For the first time a Mars rover will have the ability to drill down into the rock and dirt. Why is this so important? If Mars ever contained life, then it is likely the remnants of that life can be found down in the rocks, rather than on the surface. This is the first rover specifically designed to look for signs of life.

There is even the remote possibility of finding signs of recent, or even current life. The mission will be looking for life signatures, such as certain forms of carbon, or signs of sustained water presence in the past. Once the rover lands and is operational, it should only take a few months for answers to start beaming to life. We may know by the middle of 2021 if life ever existed on Mars.

Finding signs of life on Mars will have profound scientific implications. However, CNN, when reporting about this, chose to go with this headline: “When — or if — NASA finds life on Mars, the world may not be ready for the discovery, the agency chief says.” They quotes NASA chief scientist, Jim Green:

“It will be revolutionary,” Green told the Telegraph. “It will start a whole new line of thinking. I don’t think we’re prepared for the results. We’re not.”

Looking at Green’s other statements, I don’t think he meant to imply that the public will not be able to handle the news, although that is the spin CNN went for. Green went on to say:

“What happens next is a whole new set of scientific questions,” Dr Green continued.

“Is that life like us? How are we related? Can life move from planet to planet or do we have a spark and just the right environment and that spark generates life – like us or not like us – based on the chemical environment that it is in?”

Of course this will be a profound scientific discovery, and we can’t really anticipate all the fallout from it, both scientific and cultural. The notion that the public somehow “can’t handle” information about the universe is silly and patronizing, in my opinion. This is often the justification given by UFO enthusiasts as to why the government is hiding information (for decades, apparently) from the public. I don’t think people are going to start rioting and looting. I doubt there would even be a blip in the stock market.

If we found life on Mars, or detected an intelligent signal through SETI, or even if we detected signs of alien visitation, first – the information will get out. I doubt the government could keep a lid on it. Then, we will absorb the information and life would go on. Especially something like life on Mars – daily life would go on, but now we have something new and really interesting to talk about.

The only news that I think would cause disruption and panic is news of something that would threaten extinction of humanity, like an imminent asteroid impact. This news would have to be handled carefully.

Scientifically the results of life on Mars would be huge. As Green notes, the subsequent questions would start to flow. First – to what extent, if at all, is Martian life related to Earth life? If that can be determined with the signatures left behind, this would be the most important question to answer. Immediately I think we would start funding and designing the next mission to Mars specifically to address these questions.

The first discovery of life off Earth has profound implications for our understanding of how common life is in the Universe. If life on Mars is related to life on Earth that also has implications for the ability of life to spread through space. This would not, however, prove the more extreme claims of panspermia, that life can seed from one solar system to the next. It would only mean life can seed from one planet to the next in the same solar system.

If Martian life is clearly unrelated to Earth life, then that means life rose independently on at least two planets in one system. Right now we only know of one instance of life, which means we have no idea how common or rare it is. If we have two neighboring examples, then we know, at least, that life is not horrifically rare.

Also, alien life in either case would give us a new biology to study. Martian life may be different than Earth life in ways we cannot yet even hypothesize. Or we may be surprised by the similarities – perhaps some solutions to the problems of life are common or even universal.

This is very exciting, and it’s all less than two years away. Of course, the Mars rover may not find any signature of life where it is looking, which will still leave open the question. Signs may exist elsewhere, or we may not be looking for the right signs. We are basing our assumptions on Earth life, and perhaps Martians life is too different.

If we ultimately find that our solar system is barren of life except for Earth, that will be disappointing but also scientifically very important. It will mean that life is even more rare and precious. All the more reason to protect it.

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