12/05/2013 02:36 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2014

Is There Life on Mars? (VIDEO)


Image credit: Alicia Herbert

I have always been fascinated by questions related to our biological uniqueness. We have no evidence that life evolved more than once in the universe. But of course our universe is vast and homogenous. We now have strong evidence that there are billions of planets in our galaxy and billions of galaxies throughout the observable universe. The odds that biology is an "Earth-only" phenomenon is highly improbable. At the same time, we would like to be able to demonstrate scientifically that this assumption is correct... and that requires evidence.

For most of the modern era, Mars has been an objective of particular interest in the search for life. In fact, for a moment I thought the Mars Curiosity rover had discovered life late last year, only to be let down a few short weeks later. However, since our species' quest for non-Earth life has so intimately involved Mars, I wanted to make a video exploring and contextualizing this quest, accompanied by an elaboration on our potential future relationship with the "red planet":

I hope the video demonstrated our shape-shifting fascination with life on Mars. We were first captivated by its apparent Earth-like attributes. We then thought it possible that we were observing an intelligent civilization on Mars. And today we still hold our collective breath when Curiosity reveals a new Martian secret.

But so far... no Martians. No macroscopic or microscopic Martians, extant or extinct. In the world of modern biology, we still only have one sample of life, and that sample shares a common genetic code, a common origin, and a common home. As I mentioned in the video, there are a few important upcoming missions planned by both the European Space Agency in 2016 and NASA in 2020. Both missions will be focused on discovering life of non-Earth origin.

NASA planetary scientist Jim Bell recently elaborated on his feelings about the purpose of the 2020 mission:

There is a whole planet out there with a complicated history. That history is a story that's stored in the rocks, and our job is to figure out that story and what the story of that planet tells us about this planet.

And of course, everyone is wondering whether that story includes life. Did abiogenesis occur on two planets in the same solar system? Jack Mustard revealed that NASA's 2020 rover would be equipped with instruments that could help us start to answer that question:

[We want to] look for signatures, or rocks that may hold signatures, of biological significance.

At the moment we could be driving our robots over unicellular Martians and not realizing it! So my hopes are that these missions at least give us clues that another island of life exists or existed. However, others are hoping for the opposite, because finding two samples of life in the same solar system would suggest that the "Great Filter" is "ahead" of us and not "behind" us, whereas some scientists are starting to wonder when we should "throw in the towel" altogether in our search for life on Mars and shift focus to other targets (e.g., Europa!).

But as I tried to emphasize in the video, whether Mars is alive or dead, it is still our best opportunity for future colonization. We are remarkably lucky to have a planet in our solar system that presents us with this challenge. In the past, I've strongly advocated for the colonization of Mars and remain convinced that it is the best near-term chance we have to stabilize our presence in the universe. Wouldn't it be nice to have two stable thriving biospheres if we were unlucky enough to run into an asteroid or supervolcano? For the future of all potential human consciousness, we should be committed to becoming a two-planet species. Mars-One could be the enterprise to help us accomplish this. But there are other organizations pushing for Martian colonization as well. As long as we start trying, I'll be happy.

Within a historical context, our relationship with Mars seems to be intensifying. In only 100 year we've gone from drawing fictional maps of global canal systems on Mars to running chemical analyses on the Martian surface with real robots! What do the next 100 years hold for our ongoing narrative with Mars? Our robots will undoubtedly continue to inhabit our planetary neighbor. But when will Mars involve the human drama? A human mission seems increasingly probable (and definitely overdue). As a result, Mars could one day be home to one of our species' biggest scientific discoveries of all time (i.e., the discovery of non-Earth life!), or it could become a new home away from home... or it could be both! Either event would change us forever. The former would force us to reconsider our relationship to the cosmos and consider the possibility that life is a common phenomenon. The latter would forever change our civilization, and perhaps even our very nature.

Keep your eyes on that red point of light in the sky.

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