The Mars Curiosity Rover is currently undergoing final tests on its robotic arm in preparation for “touching” its first Martian rock (1).
The primary mission for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) is to discover whether life has ever existed on the Red Planet. If signs of past life are found, the implications are going to be huge.
The universe is impossibly vast, and we are not even a pinprick on the known map of the cosmos. Tiny though it is, Earth is positively teeming with life in its many varied and wonderful forms.
If life can exist here, surely it must exist elsewhere out there?
It is a question that philosophers and scientists have pondered for centuries, but is one that very soon may have a definitive answer.
Life on Mars
Until now, we have only been able to speculate if life exists outside the confines of our own planet. Life has thrived here on planet Earth and even managed to exist in some of the most inhospitable and surprising conditions.
“Extremophiles” are micro-organisms that can be found living in extreme conditions, such as in deep hydrothermal vents and have even been found in nuclear reactors (2). That life can exist in such harsh environments, be it in highly acidic or in extremely hot or cold locations, is a testament to exactly how adaptable life can be.
Despite that abundance of life here on Earth, no one really knows for sure if that is because our planet is unique and the conditions here are perfect for it to flourish, or that life is in fact common everywhere in the Universe.
Single-cell micro-organisms might not sound very exciting, but when put in the context of our own evolution on this planet, finding evidence of such an organism on Mars would change everything we know about our ourselves and our place in the universe.
Far from being unique and alone, we would be part of one infinitely large universal community. Granted, not all planets or moons would be playing host to intelligent and sentient life as we know it, but if we can evolve from such small beginnings, so too could others.
Life on a Mars Meteorite
There have already been tantalising clues that point to the possibility of life having previously existed on Mars.
In 1984, a team from the NASA Johnson Space Center found a meteorite in the Allan Hills ice field in Antarctica, which they transported back to Houston. Initially they believed it to be from the moon, but the unique chemical signature showed that it in fact came from the Red Planet.
Mars meteorites are extremely rare, with the unimaginatively named ALH84001 being one of only 12 that have ever been found (3).
What made this discovery even more interesting was because the scientists believed they had found evidence of “ancient, fossilized, microscopic life” hidden within the meteorite. The story created a furore at the time, with President Clinton commenting on the magnitude of the discovery just a few minutes before a hurriedly arranged NASA press conference.
To this day, scientists are divided as to whether this was truly evidence of microscopic life. Some scientists believe that the evidence has been misinterpreted, while others believe the evidence couldn’t be clearer.
If the Curiosity rover does find irrefutable evidence that yes, life did exist on Mars, or even still exists to this day; the debate can be finally laid to rest.
It would prove once and for all that life isn’t unique to this planet, and it would prove that we are not alone in the universe. Now that is something to get excited about!
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