The possibility of extraterrestrial life is fascinating. There are subtle and inconclusive hints that life may exist or have existed elsewhere in our solar system. Europa appears to have a liquid-water ocean under it’s ice that could support life. We have photos of geological structures on Mars that if found on Earth would be suspected to be fossils of microbial mats- macro-colonies of bacteria. We know that Mars once had large amounts of liquid water on the surface, and still has liquid water ‘seeps’ in isolated places.
This brings to mind a few thoughts- first among them that life is damned persistent and adaptable. We have found some form of life virtually everywhere we’ve looked on our own planet no matter how hostile the environment. I suspect that if life was ever present on Mars some form of it, however simple and isolated, survives.
Another thought is that if we discover life it will yield information about life on our own planet, because for the first time we will have something to compare terrestrial life to. Of course their is always the tantalizing possibility that we will find it is actually related to terrestrial life, which would have profound effects on our understanding of life and cosmology. Also if we discover that life arose elsewhere it will have ramifications beyond our own solar system- we have now catalogued thousands of planets orbiting other stars, many of which have the potential for life. If life can arise multiple times within our own solar system it dramatically increases the odds of finding it in other star systems.
The thought that this leads inescapably to is this- we need to go to Mars and take the resources to find out. Unmanned probes can only do so much; they lack the flexibility, imagination and intuition that humans can bring to such exploration. We need boots on the ground and living minds to examine the evidence in real-time.
Finding life on Mars opens a can of worms of course- what is our responsibility to preserve the Martian ecology? Can we in good conscience Terraform Mars for our own use when this would almost certainly have catastrophic effects on the ecosphere? The first step to answering these questions is to find out if we need to answer them.
Let’s go to Mars.