Why It Matters if NASA Finds Ancient Life on Mars

Planet Mars

NASA/JPL A panoramic view of Pathfinder's Ares Vallis landing site, featured on the cover of the Dec. 5 issue of Science, reveals traces of this warmer, wetter past, showing a floodplain covered with a variety of rock types, boulders, rounded and semi-rounded cobbles and pebbles. These rocks and pebbles are thought to have been swept down and deposited by floods which occurred early in Mars' evolution in the Ares and Tiu regions near the Pathfinder landing site.

It was a flawless launch on a beautiful Thursday morning when NASA’s Perseverance rover was blasted into space aboard the Atlas V on a seven-month voyage to Mars to look for evidence of ancient life.

The anxiously awaited launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 30 is the beginning of the most robust search for life on the red planet in U.S. history. Scientists are optimistic that they may uncover some kind of evidence of past life on Mars due to the discovery that there was once water on the planet. If life is found, humans would have concrete evidence that they are not the only form of life in the universe.

But the mission isn’t just about trying to answer one of life’s greatest mysteries. It’s also a means of seeing what’s-what regarding human expeditions to Mars.

Is there a way to produce oxygen in the Martian atmosphere? Are there any kind of resources that could support human life, like subsurface water? What are the environmental conditions that astronauts would have to deal with if they traveled to the red planet? What are the safest landing techniques for spacecraft that carry people on them?

Those are all questions NASA hopes to find the answers to during Perseverance’s exploration.

If Life Is Found It Could Help Inform Humanity About the Origins of Existence & Prove Earth Is Not Unique

Planet Earth

NASAA view of Planet Earth From Apollo 17.

When people think of life on other planets, they usually think of intelligent life. There is a persistent idea in society that intelligent extraterrestrial life could save us from ourselves somehow — introduce us to new technologies, or have powers that could heal the sick or wounded, just like in E.T. Or there is the idea that maybe they’d just obliterate humanity completely.

But the discovery of ancient microbial life on another planet could lead to a better scientific understanding of how life on Earth came to be at all, even if the life discovered can’t communicate with humans.

According to American Scientist:

Primitive life may yet be discovered on Mars; perhaps even multicellular animals will be found on a nearby extrasolar planet. These revolutionary discoveries would help us reconstruct how life on Earth evolved, but unless a species is capable of conscious, independent thought and has the ability to communicate, we will still be alone—with no one to teach or learn from, no one to save us from ourselves (and no one to battle against).

Still, just because we aren’t expecting to find intelligent life on Mars doesn’t mean finding signs of life would be insignificant.

According to Adam Frank, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who published an article in Orbiter in June 2018 after Curiosity rover had found evidence for organic chemistry on the Mars, finding microbial life on Mars would mean humanity is not alone. He wrote about how it matters if we find evidence for microbial life on Mars, saying:

 It would tell us that, on an essential level, Earth is not unique. As of today, we don’t yet know if life is a one-off accident in the cosmos, or if it is an essential player in the drama of the universe’s evolution. This matters because once biological evolution kicks in, the universe gains the possibility for innovation, creativity, and meaning on levels that are impossible in a purely abiological cosmos.

Frank argues that finding “even the simplest one-celled organisms bring meaning into the universe in the sense that they respond to their environments in purposeful ways,” which translates into a simplistic version of meaningful responses to their environments when they act on their survival instincts. He says that version of meaning creates the “rudimentary conditions for meaning-making,” as is seen in more evolved beings.

“So evidence that even simple life emerged on Mars would shatter the idea that we are ‘alone’ in an essential way . . . because meaning would have emerged in the universe more than once,” Frank wrote.

NASA Has 4 Objectives While on Mars That ‘All Relate to the Potential of Mars as a Place for Life’

NASA says its first three goals have to do with looking for evidence of microbial life.

First, they’ll look for habitability to identify “past environments capable of supporting microbial life,” according to NASA. They’ll also seek out biosignatures that could point to “possible past microbial life in those habitable environments.” They say there are “special rocks known to preserve signs of life over time,” so those could provide some clues.

NASA also plans to collect “soil” samples and core rock which will be stored on the surface of Mars.

According to NASA, “Even if the rover does not discover any signs of past life, it paves the way for human life on Mars someday. The Perseverance rover also conducts other scientific studies related to its four objectives. For example, the rover monitors weather and dust in the Martian atmosphere. Such studies are important for understanding daily and seasonal changes on Mars, and will help future human explorers better predict Martian weather.”

Astronaut Zena Cardman said that looking for signs of life on Mars are similar to looking for signs of life in non-hospitable areas on earth.

She said in an interview after the launch:

Yeah, you know we have a lot of experience looking for signs of life and unusual environments here on Earth. So, if you take a look at Mars today it’s very cold and very dry, and we have some places on earth that are actually a lot like that, so places like Antarctica or deserts. But if you want to look for signs in ancient life — life that existed billions of years ago, perhaps when Mars looks maybe a lot more like Earth does today you have to know what those signs of life left behind in the rock record because microorganisms are very tiny and very soft so they don’t leave a fossil the same way a dinosaur would leave a bone or footprint.

NASA Is Looking for 6 Life-Supporting Elements on Mars, a Planet Believed To Have Been Earthlike Billions of Years Ago

Because NASA’s previous discoveries using other Mars Exploration Rovers, “Spirit” and “Opportunity,” led to “compelling evidence that liquid water once persisted on the surface of Mars,” the goal now is to see if other elements known to support life on earth are also present on Mars. Those elements are carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur, according to the agency.

According to the website, Space, it’s very possible those elements can be found on Mars because, “Four billion years ago, the Martian surface was apparently quite habitable, featuring rivers, lakes and even a deep ocean. Indeed, some astrobiologists view ancient Mars as an even better cradle for life than Earth was, and they suspect that life on our planet may have come here long ago aboard Mars rocks blasted into space by a powerful impact.”

Space reports that Mars lost its global magnetic field which allowed “charged particles streaming from the sun…free to strip away the once-thick Martian atmosphere…This process had transformed Mars into the cold, dry world we know today by about 3.7 billion years ago, observations by NASA’s MAVEN orbiter suggest.”

Here on Earth, the magnetic field is still intact, so a livable atmosphere remains abundant, according to Space.

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