How would a discovery of life on Mars change us? We may know in a few weeks.

Eastern Hemisphere Earth

Responding to public demand, NASA scientists created a companion image to the wildly popular ‘Blue Marble’ released last week (January 25, 2012). Credit: NASA/NOAA

Findings by Mars Rover could change our place in the Universe.

(Update 11/26/12 – KnowledgeOrb has learned that the announcement from NASA about SAM findings will be on 12/3/12)

Recently NASA stated an “announcement for the history books” would be coming from the Mars Curiosity Rover team. This announcement concerns findings from the soil samples recently analyzed by the SAM (Sample Analysis at MARS) instrument. This instrument was designed to address the present and past habitability of Mars by exploring molecular and elemental chemistry relevant to life. SAM looks at carbon chemistry through a search for organic compounds, the chemical state of light elements other than carbon, and isotopic tracers of planetary change. a suite of three instruments, Instruments on SAM including a mass spectrometer, gas chromatograph, and tunable laser spectrometer What this announcement could be we don’t yet know but the SAM instrument was designed to find signs of life.

Because these compounds are essential to life as we know it, their relative abundances will be an essential piece of information for evaluating whether Mars could have supported life in the past or present. With that in mind we can guess only one thing about this announcement  SAM has detect that there is or was life on Mars. What would this mean for us? For one thing it would validate the 2.5 billion dollars spent on this mission was worth the cost. For each U.S. citizen this works out to abot $8.00…less than the price of a movie ticket. Finding life outside our own blue marble would change the understanding of our place in the universe. A technical achievement like this would be follow by a philosophical reassessment of man. Where did we come from, are we alone, what is our future. These and many other topics would have new data which would need to be added to the calculation. .

Of course there will be years of debate about the findings themselves. The Viking lander also found signs of life in the 1970’s after it landed but these were dismissed as contamination or error. The scientists involved still do not agree with that conclusion some still stating the findings were indeed valid. If we now find that life exists on Mars this could be a validation that the original Viking findings were correct and not due to contamination or other issues. In point of fact SAM and MSL would then not get the credit for first finding life on Mars but this honor would go to Viking.

Assuming again that life was found we would then have to again assure it was not contamination from MSL itself. Even if it was not contamination from the MSL rover did we contaminate Mars with one of our other missions there and we are simply seeing that? Not likely but also not impossible. This would explain why NASA is taking their time and not yet announcing any finding. They want to be sure the data is good, not contaminated, and will stand scientific scrutiny. If it does, and they found hard evidence of life,  we do indeed have an announcement for the history books.

Evidence of life on Mars would be proof of something mankind has been pondering for almost as long we have known there were planets. Did that life come from Mars itself? Fall from the sky on meteors to Mars just as it may have on Earth? Did life in our solar system start on Mars and transplant to Earth in effect making us all actually Martians? All great questions.

Would this discovery feed the planet, solve our energy problems, stop wars? No, but it would change our perspective on where we belong in the universe and our role there. Knowing life exists elsewhere changes the game. If life is this common the chance for intelligent life therefore goes up dramatically.  Perhaps this discovery will spur mankind to search harder for our brothers in the universe. If we find them perhaps we indeed could learn from them and in doing so improve the human condition. While the small step of  finding life on Mars may not itself solve our problems here on Earth, it could be a step which leads us on a path that will. This is why exploration is so important. There is no guarantee of a return or discovery but when you explore you could learn something that will indeed change the world. Instead of going to a movie and watching fiction, we spend that money to make and be a part of history, advancing mankind. For me that is $8.00 well spent.

 

About the author

Recipient of many prestigious NASA Awards including the Exceptional Public Service Medal and the Robert H. Goddard award. Experience includes working for NASA, as a contractor, in satellite design, construction and operations. Expert in the satellite operations concepts and ground systems including command, control, and science data processing.