Life on Mars is inevitable. Now, such a statement may sound audacious, farfetched, and maybe even just a little bit crazy. It might be viewed as being just a wild prognostication about finding extraterrestrial microbial life on Mars -- but it is based firmly in the realm of reality.
Two great milestones will almost certainly occur in the first half of this century that will validate this statement:
1) Humanity will definitively determine whether indigenous life exists or ever existed on Mars.
2) Human missions to Mars will begin.
Whether it is Martian microbes and/or human explorers, there will be life on Mars. In an age where the word "historic" is bandied about for every new sports statistic, celebrity pontification, or political argument, either one of these momentous events coming to fruition would truly be "historic.' They would be considered among the most significant events in all of human history.
The second anniversary this week of the successful landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars also reminds us that there is a tremendous worldwide appetite for knowledge about Mars. Curiosity will soon enter a region of Mars that mission planners and scientists have been anticipating since the first moment that the Curiosity rover was proposed -- the base of Mt. Sharp. Once there, its robotic eyes will view the most stunning vistas ever seen on another planet -- vistas that will surely captivate the world. Huge formations of stratified rock will be visible. Not only will the layers in these rocks show us the geological past of Mars more clearly than ever before, but they could very well shed light on whether Mars ever sustained life.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that the search for life is one of the primary objectives of our Mars exploration program, NASA has no current plans to search for current life on Mars. This needs to change. If a compelling mission plan can be devised, the search for present day life on Mars should be made an international priority.
It may very well require humans to make the final determination of whether life exists on Mars, or ever existed. But if we can find an efficient method of testing for life on Mars before we send human crews, it will allow human explorers to conduct far more effective science while on Mars.It will also help us to protect both the crew and any indigenous life from contamination.
Government does not need to bear the full burden of this effort, however. Private entities can now play a role. For example, the non-profit organization Explore Mars, Inc. is proposing an innovative project called ExoLance that will search for life below the Martian surface, where most scientists believe we have the greatest chance of finding life. The ExoLance system would use penetrators that would burrow 1-2 meters below the Martian surface and would test for the presence of microbial life. Explore Mars just launched a crowd-funding campaign to fund this project -- thus allowing private individuals to support the search for life on Mars for the first time.
ExoLance is a symbol of the exciting times in which we now live, a wonderful new era in which private entities, individuals, and even governmental organizations can work together, efficiently and sustainably, to achieve a common goal in space. NASA and international space agencies will certainly play a key role in getting humans to Mars, but they will now be assisted through the efforts and contributions of private entities and individuals, something that would not have been possible back during the Apollo era. This is an essential step if we hope to establish a sustained presence on Mars or anywhere else in space.
Humanity in the first half of the 21st Century must not settle for superficial events as a substitute for great events, particularly when great events are within our grasp. Even if Mars proves to be devoid of extant life, human life on our neighboring world will begin an epic new phase in exploration over the next decades. When a person in the mid-21st century is asked whether there is life on Mars, the answer will therefore confidently be, "Yes." The only remaining question that will then need to be answered is whether that life consists of Earthlings, Martians, or both.
Chris Carberry is Executive Director of Explore Mars, Inc. -- a non-profit organization based in Massachusetts