Should We Care About Life on Mars? (Pt 1)

National space agencies and private companies have made colonization of Mars a priority. However, when it’s time to request public funding, the search for life on Mars is emphasized over reasons why we should colonize the Red Planet.

True-color image of Mars from the Rosetta spacecraft.
True-color image of Mars from the Rosetta spacecraft.

It would be astounding and wonderful to discover extraterrestrial life anywhere, but shouldn’t we be focusing more on the practical aspects of human settlement of Mars?

That’s a tough question. Good arguments can be made for and against using the quest to find extraterrestrial life as the primary basis for exploration of Mars.

Life on Mars

The best argument for stressing exobiology – life in places other than Earth – is that most people already think of Mars in terms of life, thanks to the way Western science and science fiction developed.

Artwork by Henrique Alvim Corréa for the 1906 Belgian edition of  "The War of the Worlds."  Source
Artwork by Henrique Alvim Corréa for the 1906 Belgian edition of “The War of the Worlds.” Source

For a long time scientists had little to say about that bright orange dot in the night skies. They just didn’t have the right tools for the job.

In the late 19th century, two Italian astronomers published maps of Mars based on their telescope observations. The Italian word they used for linear channels was “canali.” It was mistranslated as “canals,” and that got the attention of Percival Lowell.

In 1894, Lowell built a 24-inch telescope in Flagstaff, Arizona, and used it to see dark lines that he imagined were parts of a complex canal system on Mars. He felt that the canals radiated from the polar regions to dark spots that he thought were cities. This obviously meant, to him, that Martians had learned to live in global peace since they had a global canal system.

Scientists were doubtful because they couldn’t duplicate Lowell’s results consistently, but he certainly fired the public imagination.

In 1897, H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds appeared as a magazine serial.

The fun continued in the 20th century with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s stories of Barsoom and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles as well as a myriad of other science fiction tales in print and on the screen.

Canals that Percival Lowell imagined he saw on Mars - they don't actually exist.
Canals that Percival Lowell imagined he saw on Mars – they don’t actually exist.

Mars missions

Planetary science, in the meantime, marched on slowly until the middle of the 20th century. The Space Race then hastened progress not only on lunar missions but also on approval for exploratory missions to Mars. In 1960, NASA set up the Office of Life Sciences to run a 10-year planetary exploration program, starting with Mars.

It all nearly came to a screeching halt in July 1965, when Mariner 4 arrived at Mars and sent back blurry images of a cratered and apparently barren world.

NASA scientists realized that Mars’ surface had probably remained unchanged for hundred of millions, if not billions, of years. There never had been a race of canal-building Martians. There could never have been vegetation, and it seemed that there never was any running water, let alone any life on the surface of Mars. It was a completely dead planet.

— Kevin Nolan, “Mars: A Cosmic Stepping Stone”

NASA considered ending its Mars program, but scientists soon realized that Mars exploration is valuable on a purely scientific basis.

Missions continued, though the US and the Soviet Union lost 15 of the 27 spacecraft they sent to the Red Planet between 1960 and 1995. The biggest success during that period were the two US Viking landers that reached the planet in 1976.

First clear image from Mars - Viking 1, July 20, 1976.
The first clear image from Mars – Viking 1, July 20, 1976.

Their high-resolution cameras sent back over 57,000 images of Mars. Viking 1 and 2 also carried equipment that studied the planet’s thin atmosphere, weather, soil and surface rocks.

Each lander had at least five labs on board, three biological and two chemistry, to look for signs of living organisms. It turned out that our lifeless Moon has more organic matter (from impacting comets and asteroids) in its soil than does Mars. However, some of the results could have come from microorganisms, so overall the results were considered inconclusive.

The Viking landers did show incontrovertible evidence of dried river channels and what looked like evidence of ancient and huge flash floods, as well as lakes and seas, though no flowing water has yet been discovered on Mars to date. Viking did discover a huge reservoir of frozen water in the permafrost that covers the entire surface of the planet.

More missions followed. The most successful ones include:

Confusing the Public

I think it’s worth noting that humanity found out that there was a lot of water on Mars almost 40 years ago and yet news stories today still focus on the “scientists discover water on Mars!” angle today.

It’s not news anymore and only adds to the public confusion.

We laypeople aren’t totally clueless, of course. Some of the many scientific discoveries about Mars from Viking and the successful missions that came after it have seeped into the public consciousness.

Three of the Mars rovers – Spirit, Opportunity, and especially Curiosity – actually have quite popular personas as well as being scientific successes.

Curiosity's Space Selfie.
Curiosity’s Space Selfie.

However, the general public overall seems caught between the old and the new views of Mars.

This captioned photograph, “What Everyone Was Thinking When the Mars Rover Landed,” at (note: language alert, F-bomb used) sums up the uncertainty. It was posted right after the Curiosity rover’s landing on August 6, 2012.

There are a lot of science fiction jokes there, but the central question is one of practical use: “So, can we live here when Earth breaks?”

Earth, of course, isn’t going to break. Even if it did, we couldn’t evacuate billions of people to Mars.

So what other reasons besides the search for life might there be to explore and colonize Mars? And if we do find extraterrestrial life there, will it help us or hinder us?

We’ll explore all that next week in the second post of this two-part series.

Pixeldust Studios developed this animation for NOVA’s episode, “Is there life on Mars?”

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  • Linda T. Elkins-Tanton, The Solar System: Mars. New York. Chelsea House, 2006.
  • Kevin Nolan, Mars: A Cosmic Stepping Stone. New York. Praxis, 2008.

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