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Astronomy 201a - Was There Life on Mars?

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Was There Life on Mars?

Bear man


Caleb Becsi

Astronomy 201-A

Professor Mitchell


Was there Life on Mars?

Space and its dynamics have plagued scientists ever since the inception of humanity. Ever since people have looked up at the stars, people have often asked and pondered the question; are we alone? Mars has been a source of fascination for amateur and professional astronomers alike, through-out all stages of mankind. Possibly the greatest reason for this affinity with Mars is the possibility that life exists on Mars or that it did at a point in its history. There have been numerous probes sent to Mars to examine its surface and atmosphere with more in the future, as well as plans to send astronauts there. No sign of intelligent life has been detected yet however, scientists have accumulated a range of data pointing to the hypothesis that primitive, microbial life could have existed on Mars during some point in its history and may even continue to do so today.

Even the media has jumped on the bandwagon to appeal to the masses with various films and movies depicting life on Mars including 'Ghosts on Mars', 'Martian Child', a huge list of B-grade films and of course the famous 'Marvin the Martian' from Looney Tunes. Although all of these are scientifically inaccurate and far-fetched, they play into people's attraction for extra-terrestrials. Perhaps the most infamous and notable example of the media exploiting the idea of Martians was in 1938 when acclaimed actor, director and radio presenter Orson Welles delivered an oral adaption on the BBC network of the 1898 "War of the Worlds" novel by Herbet Wells (Lovgen). Many people were deceived into thinking the radio broadcast was actually occurring, causing hysteria and pandemonium in some areas.

There have been 44 probes/rovers that have examined Mars since the 1960s. All of these have shared the same, fundamental objective; to examine and learn about the planet. Arguably the most controversial of these visits was on the 1976 exploration of Viking I. The ship was examining the surface of the planet, looking for potential landing-spots for its counterpart Viking II, when it took a photo of an object that resembled a humanoid face (Phillips). Upon release to the public, it stirred up a frenzy as people believed that the remains of an actual Martian had been found. Upon later inspection, it was revealed that the object in the photo was actually a rock, stemming from the Martian region of Cydonia. Despite the somewhat disappointing revelations, the event only further fueled people's desire to search for extra-terrestrial life and the distorted image became a pop icon, even appearing in film adaptians.

Arguably the most significant indicator concerning the prevalence on life on Mars are the ice caps. The presence of ice proves that water exists on the planet, perhaps once it much greater content than today (Read & Lewis). Water is a vital substance in any form of life that we have encountered, including bacteria, mammals, reptiles, insects, plant-life, and so on. Water kick-starts metabolism which enables life to survive by constantly ensuring that waste products are being replaced by proteins, nutrients, ions, etc. Mars' polar ice caps have been observed since the 17th century, discovering later on that the caps fluctuate in size depending on the season. During the summer period the ice caps shrink, during the winter period they grow, suggesting that the planet maintains water in liquid form underneath the land.

Further, scientists have recently discovered fresh downward slopes on mountainsides, implying that during summer ice melts and the slush trickles down the mountains (Cabrol & Grin). Much like Jupiter's icy moon Europa, a presence of water could very well mean there's a presence of life, as water is the fundamental building block for vitality. Further, for some forms of life Mars could indeed be very habitable. Although it has an atmosphere that it is not suitable for Earth life prior to terraformation, recent explorations by the rover 'Curiosity' has uncovered dirt samples containing carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, phosphorous, sulfur and nitrogen (Agle & Brown), all of which are elements that are crucial to life on Earth.

Another interesting point for consideration, is the presence of geysers scattered all over the Southern region. The geysers themselves are only active during the Spring period, and unlike any other naturally occurring phenomena known to man, have taken on the bizarre appearance of a spider (Krulwich). The reason for this is currently unknown, scientists are debating over the possible explanations for this. The presence of these geysers opens the possibility for extremophiles. In this particular scenario, the hypothetical organisms would have to possess the ability to stay dormant during the solar year, only re-entering an active state during the Spring period through which they would be exposed to temperatures of extreme heat. Further, scientists have discovered that certain areas of Mars are very rich in silica, which is consistent



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