UPDATE (18 Feb 2021, 4:00 pm ET): On Thursday, Perseverance successfully touched Mars, embarking on a two-year mission to weave into its surface and look for signs of ancient microbial life.
NASA is repeating an old quest: a quest for life on Mars.
The hunt for the inhabitants of the red planet began close to four decades ago, when the agency sent two spaceships Viking landers on Mars. Their task was to prove that the planet, though red, is not dead.
The hunt for the inhabitants of the red planet began close to four decades ago, when the agency sent two Viking landing craft to Mars.
Landers initially sent data that looked compatible with organisms like bacteria on earth. But with further analysis, early optimism waned. Was there life on Mars? NASA concluded: Probably not.
This ready answer was vague, especially for a $ 1 billion experiment. So NASA is now taking a different approach to its search for microbes. Unlike Viking landers, the new Perseverance rover requires no chemical signs of metabolism. Instead, Perseverance will grab around Mars by throwing landscapes looking for sediments. These may contain data on organisms rising and spinning in long-extinct seas.
The reason is simple: If Mars ever had life, the dead would surely be more numerous than the living, and therefore more likely to be found. Proposed landing site for persistence, Jezero crater, looks like a former lake pond fed by a dry river, a happy hunting ground for a rover buzzing about the dried up remains of early inhabitants.
The samples collected by Perseverance will hopefully be collected and returned to Earth from a future mission, to be analyzed in terrestrial laboratories. There will be no Eureka moment for Perseverance; if the Martians are found, they will be found on Earth.
But if that happens, it will be more than an interesting scientific story. Just as the past is now divided into before and after the Copernican revolution, so the discovery of long-expiring Martian bacteria will forever change humanity’s view of its significance.
However, there is one thing that can dilute the impact of finding life (dead) on Mars. If it turns out that Martian organisms were related to terrestrial life if they both sport the same DNA biology, then the discovery could point to how life could accidentally spread between worlds, hitchhiking to contaminated teeth launched into space From the impacts of meteors. It would be interesting, yes. But much more impressive would be to discover that our solar system has had a second genesis; that life on Earth and Mars had different origins. This would mean that life is just as common in the cosmos.
If so, it would surely be that in other places among the trillions of the Milky Way planets, life has evolved into a state of conscious intelligence. Just the beginning of life does not guarantee this; surely there would be multiple worlds where life stagnates like basin sludge. But this may not be the case for every planet or moon that spawns biology. Intelligence has the value of survival.
So finding Martian life should force us to give up the notion that we are privileged, that humans are the only sensible inhabitants of the universe. Indeed, we would not only have a strong indication of cosmic enterprise, but we could conclude that it is widespread. It would involve beings that are far beyond our technical level, given that the Sun and its planets are relatively newcomers to the universe, billions of years younger than the average solar system.
Such a realization would be just as important to our self-image as when we learned that we are not separated from the fauna of our world, but merely a part of it.
Suddenly, we would face the likelihood that everything we achieve has parallels in the actions of other invisibles, and that what we see as beautiful and valuable must have a billion other definitions elsewhere. Scientists, who find joy in being the first to know something, would realize that countless other beings have also learned it. We can be sure that there are large libraries of knowledge, which we can not access.
What about religion? Theology has famously clashed against previous scientific discoveries that significantly reduced our central position in the cosmos, from Galileo to Darwin. How would you react to learning that not only is our planet not unique, but neither are its most famous inhabitants?
or Survata survey from 2013 suggests that the answer may be more positive than we think. According to respondents, up to a third of members of major Western religions may already believe in extraterrestrial life. Even the Catholic Church, known for censoring Galileo, is accepting at least that possible existence of sensitive beings elsewhere in the universe. (Pope Francis has specifically expressed his willingness to baptize Martians.)
Persistence can take us back a long way. In the 18th century, telescopes became powerful enough to distinguish polar ice caps and surface marks on Mars. The red planet was the only world we knew where conditions could be similar to those on Earth. This resemblance started a lasting belief in the life of Mars and the Rover of Perseverance is the latest game from science that hunts it, dead or alive.
But what may seem like a direct pursuit of a long hypothesis would succeed if it had major philosophical consequences. Wrote Protagoras that man is the measure of all things. But thanks to some high-tech hardware running through the dusty sands of a nearby world, this may soon cease to be true.
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