If you’re not a chemist, an astrobiologist, or a scientist of any sort, and that includes most of us, then a tiny, almost imperceptible whiff of methane in the Martian atmosphere might seem like no big deal. But it is, gentle humans. It is.
Mars has long been thought of as dry and barren – unable to harbour life. But research over the past few years indicates that there is most likely some briny water present there today, including a possible subsurface lake. This has led to new hopes that there could actually be life on the red planet after all, depending on what the conditions are like in the water.
Back in June, NASA revealed two mind-blowing facts: that there is organic matter on Mars, and that levels of methane in the planet’s atmosphere ebb and flow over time. It’s pretty exciting news that shook our understanding of astrobiology. And while this isn’t necessarily proof that aliens are out there, much of our terrestrial methane was produced by living things. And as any child can tell you, if you smelled it, someone must have dealt it.
Tantalizing new evidence has suggested that there may be a salty lake below a glacier on Mars. While brine at freezing temperatures does not sound like the most hospitable of environments, it is difficult to resist pondering whether organic life could survive – or even make some kind of living – there
On August 5th, 2012, after spending over 8 months in space, NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars. As part of the NASA Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, and the latest in a series of rovers deployed to the Martian surface, Curiosity had some rather ambitious research goals. In addition to investigating Mars’ climate and geology, the rover was also tasked with revealing more about Mars’ past and determining if it ever supported microbial life.
Finding past or present microbial life on Mars would without doubt be one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time. And in just two years’ time, there’s a big opportunity to do so, with two rovers launching there to look for signs of life – Mars2020 by NASA and ExoMars by the European Space Agency and Roscosmos.
For some time, scientists have suspected that life may have existed on Mars in the deep past. Owing to the presence of a thicker atmosphere and liquid water on its surface, it is entirely possible that the simplest of organisms might have begun to evolve there. And for those looking to make Mars a home for humanity someday, it is hoped that these conditions (i.e favorable to life) could be recreated again someday.
For over a year, the Curiosity rover has been making its way up the slopes of Mount Sharp, the central peak within the Gale Crater. As the rover moves higher along this formation, it has been taking drill samples so that it might look into Mars’ ancient past. Combined with existing evidence that water existed within the crater, this would have provided favorable conditions for microbial life.
One of the most tantalising questions in science is whether there is or ever has been life on Mars, at least in microbial form. But despite plenty of effort – including orbiting missions and even rovers that have analysed its red rocks and soil – we have so far not managed to detect any conclusively.
NASA’s chief scientist recently announced that “…we’re going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade, and I think we’re going to have definitive evidence within 20 to 30 NASA’s chief scientist recently announced that “…we’re going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade, and I think we’re going to have definitive evidence within 20 to 30 years.” Such a discovery would clearly rank as one of the most important in human history and immediately open up a series of complex social and moral questions. One of the most profound concerns is about the moral status of extraterrestrial life forms. Since humanities scholars are only just now beginning to think critically about these kinds of post-contact questions, naïve positions are common.
“It (could be) life Jim, but (perhaps) not as we know it.” This is not just a sci-fi catchphrase, but also something some planetary scientists have uttered in response to the discovery of methane in Mars' atmosphere. That’s right – scientists believe that some kind of past or present microbial lifeform on Mars could have produced the methane. While it is far from the only possible explanation, it is actually so plausible that a special mission is being sent there to find out.
From the origin of life to the fate of the universe, there’s plenty scientists simply don’t know. But they are making progress. 2015 has been a great year for science: we’ve seen the agreement of climate deal, pictures of dwarf planets and evidence of flowing water on Mars. So what will happen in 2016 – are there any major science mysteries that could be solved? We asked three experts to speculate.