Is there life on Mars – again?

NASA has plans afoot to build a second nuclear powered Mars rover, Curiosity style, and land it on the planet in 2020 with another fireball-and-rocket crane spectacular.

Curiosity landingOnce there it will look directly for signs of ancient life, on the logic that there won’t be any to find easily today. But an older, wetter and more convivial Mars might have been a different story

The rover will even have a box for samples that might be returned to Earth by some later mission.

Which is pretty cool on just about every count. And maybe we’ll get answers to questions that have been burning since long before the dawn of the space age

Assuming, of course, we ask the right ones. That’s been the problem.  When the Vikings landed on Mars in 1976 they were geared to look for life-as-we-know it. The results were ambiguous and likely caused by the perchlorates that we now know saturate the upper layers of the Martian soil.

And therein lay the real issue. On Earth, if one experiment doesn’t work, you devise another and try that, based on what you learned the first time.

Not so easy when you have to transport that repeat experiment to Mars to a chorus of shrinking budgets, where ‘failure’ is likely to kill the next allocation – yet where you might have to follow your Mk II Life Detecting Lab with a third…and a fourth…

Part of the problem was that we didn’t know enough to ask the right questions. Viking’s ambiguous failure threw the issue back to basics. Had Mars even had water? Broadly, that’s where the focus has been since – and now that we have ‘yes’ to a lot of those basic questions, it’s possible to take the next steps.

To me this is a cool application of scientific method – systematically, over decades, and it’s paying dividends.

And we can speculate that even if Mars never had life – or if it did, and it’s gone extinct, it’s likely to have other life soon. Us. Maybe.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

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12 comments on “Is there life on Mars – again?

  1. Mars, for the moment, is the next frontier. It stirs the imagination, which is why there are so many who are willing to go. At least we won’t decimate the forests. Then again, maybe we’ll disturb too many rocks…
    See, it stirs the imagination.

    • Mars certainly inspires – and I don’t think we’ll ever lose the dream of it, even once we’ve got there and it begins yielding its secrets. Still, it worries me a bit that our bacteria will get to Mars and pollute the place – maybe even overwhelm any Martian life. Which, weirdly, is the exact scenario H G Wells postulated in ‘The War of the Worlds’ over a century ago, in reverse. This time, we’d be the invaders. But then, isn’t that human history in a nutshell?

      • It is. There’ve been the explorers and there’ve been the invaders and sometimes they’re difficult to tell apart. Sometimes they’re one-in-the-same. Sometimes one follows the other.

    • SoundEagle says:

      Hi Matthew and ontyrepassages,

      What both of you have just raised is certainly sobering and food for thought. Given that the environmental, social, political and economic issues and problems seem to be getting larger (and in many cases more dire) by the year, I seriously wonder whether space travel is even affordable and/or sustainable in the future.

      The trick or problem is whether we could leave the Earth before we wreck it, and before serious disasters cause the decimation or even extinction of the human species. It is not just a question of whether the issue or vision is being seen as utopian or dystopian.

      Besides, since the human species has not (always, adequately and/or consistently) been a good custodian of the environment and the Earth (not to mention countless wars, atrocities, resource depletions, species extinctions environmental degradations and so on, plus an area of rainforest as big as 100,000 football courts is being cleared or destroyed everyday), there is no guarantee that once the human species migrates to another planet, the same trick or problem would not again surface and plague us, perhaps at an even quickening and/or devastating pace as a result of better and greater expansion, production and technology. We would export our baggage and problems to other worlds!

      • Hi – I agree. I think if we went to Mars, we’d deal to it the same way we’re currently dealing to Earth. Richard Attenborough summed it up when he referred to us as the ‘scourge’ of the planet. Caused an outcry, but it seems to be true. Jared Diamond has published a good analysis of it, if a little deterministic for my liking. The reason would seem to be a faulty survival mechanism – hard-wired techniques for maximising resources that worked when we were on the ragged edge of extinction in the ice age, but now serve to create problems..

  2. Well, well. your timing is impeccable. Late last week I was invited by my brother, to travel to Florida in November. The purpose of the trip will be to witness, at close range, the launch of the MAVEN spacecraft as it leaves for Mars. As a member of the launch vehicle design team, Bro can invite family and friends to the Cape as special guests. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Now I just need to scrap together the funds for airfare and hotel.

  3. The big (no pun intended) question is, “What will they draw on the surface this time?” Sorry. Just couldn’t let that one go. :-)

  4. Frankly, I don’t see the need for humans to invade another planet. If they had done right by planet Earth, it would make sense. What’s the point of traveling all those miles only to pollute the environment of another planet? It would make a great sci-fi book or movie, but for real-life, forget it. Mean, aren’t I?

    • Realistic, I think! :-) Humanity has an unerring capacity to destroy, damage and otherwise wreck environments. It’s happened repeatedly through human history, starting with ancient Babylon (Jared Diamond has a lot to say about it) and I bet it’ll happen, sure as eggs, when we finally get to Mars. If we get there – at the current rate we’ll probably choke on our own effluent here before we stop arguing over funding a Mars mission…

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