Life Beyond Earth in 10 Years or Less?


Illustration credit: Robert McCall

Peter Smith feels pretty certain we’ll be finding life on Mars within the next decade. 

Smith, the University of Arizona professor who led NASA’s Phoenix Mars Mission, made his predictions to a spellbound audience during a lecture at the University of Delaware earlier this month, and he discussed his ideas by phone on Thursday. He carries a “sense of optimism” about finding life on Mars, he said, because of the tantalizing clues Phoenix sent to Earth.

“Finding life on Mars would be one of the great discoveries of all time,” he said. “We’re not that far away. The next mission could be the one.”

Phoenix launched in August of 2007 and spent five months in one spot,  controlled by Smith and his Tucson-based crew who directed it to dig and analyze soil samples from an area about the size of a couch. 

Mars’ closest corollary on Earth is the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, Smith said. Although no life was discovered on Mars by Phoenix, tiny organisms inhabit the soils of Antarctica’s Dry Valleys, including a predatory nematode about a sixteenth of an inch long.


“Phoenix got me excited because it’s really the next step beyond the Dry Valleys of Antarctica. In the coldest places in the Dry Valleys …  nobody thought anything would live there.” 

Last week, scientists announced the discovery of a biological community living in dark, oxygen-deprived briny pool beneath a glacier near Dry Valleys.

“The idea is on Mars, it’s probably much too cold right now, but in the recent past, the climate has been different,” he said. “It might have been closer to the Dry Valleys during those times. We’re looking at a situation where this may be a periodically habitable zone.”

Some of the Phoenix team members believe liquid water was photographed on the lander’s legs, but Smith isn’t one of them. Still, he admits that Phoenix sent back hints of life that have him on the edge of his seat.


“Martian soil is really sticky and clumpy,” Smith said, noting that the probe would get a scoop of soil to pour into its ovens for chemistry experiments, but it would take four days of shaking to get the soil through the screens.

“Many times it takes liquid water to make the soils clumpy like that,” he said, adding the clumpiness could be a result of electrostatic forces.

Phoenix found calcium carbonate in the Martian soil, which typically requires liquid water in its formation process. It saw clouds and falling snow.

Another experiment, the HiRise camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, spotted near-surface ice as far as 40 degrees latitude, “whereas we thought it was cutting off around 60 degrees,” he said.

And Smith pointed out the recent discovery of methane on Mars. “Where in the heck does methane come from?” he mused. “On Earth, it’s linked with biological functions.”

Besides active volcanoes — which are not known to exist on Mars — another terrestrial source of methane is a mineralization process that happens at tectonic plate boundaries. But he said that doesn’t match what we know about Martian geology either.

On the other hand, “If you had fractures in the soil, and the fractures went down to a wet environment, you could have a biological community down there,” Smith said.

The Phoenix mission was a collaboration of numerous agencies and academic institutions besides the University of Arizona, including NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver and scientific institutes in Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, and Switzerland.

The mission outlasted its expected time limits by several months, but went into a possibly permanent “Sleeping Beauty” mode when Martian winter hit. It won’t awaken until October if it awakens at all.

Smith said the next mission, the Mars Science Laboratory, will include a large rover the size of a MINI-Cooper, with big tires, that would last at least five years and land near an area of high interest, such as the edge of a canyon. 

“I think the next decade is a very active time for searching for signatures on Mars,” he said, “and my personal belief is we’ll find them.”

Sources: Eurekalert and an interview with Peter Smith

17 Replies to “Life Beyond Earth in 10 Years or Less?”

  1. i agree that the next decade will be very interesting .. i don’t know if i can agree on the fact the we will find life over there so soon ..
    the MSL is taking huge amounts of money and funds … so it’s not that there are many planed missions soon to mars…
    of course then there’s ExoMars , from ESA .. but with the crysis it seems to be a distant future…

    i think the next BIG STEP will be returning a marsian rock to earth….

    of course it’s nice to dream about finding life….. it wold push enthusiasm in the harts of people all over the world.. it could be the start of something beautiful

  2. Every experiment related to “transpermia” (exchange of life between planets via meteoroids) has strengthen the case for exchange of life between Earth and Mars over billions of years. The problem has been how Earth-life might get established on reaching Mars. These latest Phoenix results suggest this might not be that difficult.
    See “Glaciers on Mars – a safe landing for hitchhiking microbes from Earth”

  3. I don’t think a robot can find life.

    The problem is that no matter the results from experiments, they will always be disputed as mechanical anomalies or improper data analysis.
    We’ve been sending probes with all sorts of instruments, and even the most positive results have been dismissed.

    No, your not going to find life with a robot. The scientists themselves wont allow it. Not even if the thing your studying jumps out and starts munching on a camera.

    Your going to need humans and, in that case, it wont be this decade. Probably not in the next either.
    I suspect the final call for finding life wont come after many return samples have been made and studied in labs on earth.

  4. I hope Smith is right—it would be a wonderful discovery—but I wonder if we might not find compelling evidence for life on an exoplanet first. In other words, biomarkers in the atmosphere or perhaps even direct imaging of biomass.

    That’s not going to happen for another 20 years or so, but there won’t be all that many new missions to Mars in that length of time, and it could take a lot of luck (as well as the skill) to send them to exactly the right place to find Martian life (especially if it’s underground).

    I hope I’m wrong, but I am currently leaning slightly in favor of finding compelling evidence for life outside the solar system first.

  5. tacitus Says:
    April 23rd, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    I agree tacitus. Paradoxically, it may be easier in the end to find the evidence for life light-years away than on our own doorstep. However, I think that any evidence that we do find on exoplanets will be in dispute for many, many years (and perhaps centuries) to come, even allowing for significant funding increases and new instrumentation in the event that they find something.

    We live in exciting times though, that much is for sure.

  6. I continue to believe that life will be found outside of Earth in our lifetime. There WILL be disputes; however, people are getting used to the idea day after day when the news reports the latest scientific results.

    Even the Vatican put out a press release saying that there could be the possibility of life outside of Earth (and that they are all part of God’s creation). From an organization that occasionally be, let’s say, slow to change.

    I don’t think the fact that robots will find it before humans will matter that much. I do think that the idea of forward contamination will be a huge factor, as most of the public will easily understand this concept, but it might be difficult to understand how we avoid this situation.


  7. Christians are generally more receptive to the idea of alien life than many scientists. At least in my experience.

    I think it will be easier to discover an alien civilization simply because the evidence is harder to ignore.
    To prove bacteria are alive you’d probably demand samples or imagry. A chemical check won’t be Enough.

    Question is if we will ever be satisfied with the results compiled by a machine.

  8. I just made a bet on this with a friend. The terms were for a discovery of *current* life of non-terrestrial, or at least not recently terrestrial, origin on Mars within the next 10 years considered as conclusive by a majority of scientists in the field. The nominal amount was $1, and after bargaining, I took the bet at 800:1 against.

    The reasoning given for this being supposedly “likely” is not at all convincing to me. Just because life can *adapt* to harsh circumstances doesn’t mean it could have *originated* under those circumstances. If the earth’s climate was entirely like the Arctic, I simply do not think life would have arisen here, and the Arctic is actually considerably more hospitable than Mars. It’s possible that Mars was hospitable in the past and life adapted as it became more inhospitable, but there’s also a limit to adaptation, and it’s exaggeration to claim that any conditions under which life exists on earth are as severe as even the mildest of those on Mars. At least one transition in the Earth’s history, the Permian-Triassic extinction event, almost extinguished life on Earth. Mars would have had to go through even more dramatic transitions to go from a climate conducive to life to its current state.

    I just don’t believe it, and it’s not because I’m biased against claims of extraterrestrial life. I think there’s a possibility for Europa, and that at least life of single cell level complexity is more likely than not to exist at some other location in our galaxy.

  9. “Nobody thought anything could live there (the Dry Valleys of Antarctica)” – tell that to Wolf Vishniac – he died proving microbial life lived there. He probably would have discovered life on Mars except his experiment was pulled from Viking for cost reasons. It is time to discover life on Mars – and put an end to this “mini Dark Age”, or “Age of Deception”, or whatever history will record it as……

  10. Isn’t professorSmith making a rather large assumption here … after we all we can’t discover life on Mars if it isn’t there.

  11. excellent discussions, here is my 2 cents for nasa, I love the astronauts but am not doting of bureaucracy.

    with money tight for the foreseeable future, any chance nasa could drop the “finding evidence of life” obsession and focus on preserving life on Earth?

    A vehicle (or multiple vehicles) with a max of 1 per 1000 failure rate to deliver a package into orbit, maybe subcontract to Russia.

    Missions to visit, as yet undiscovered bodies passing near Earth. Very different from the usual projects that take years to plan. Since we often discover these objects just a few months before they pass by, a rapid/flexible/reliable system would be needed, might come in handy someday. Want to send astronauts? Fine by me since we are not sending them into space for years. Start small, check out a tc3 like object that hit Sudan. Can we deflect these smaller but more plentiful objects?

    Just a thought and a place to start. If you tell me you have evidence for life on Mars and a new comet has been discovered heading for Earth, we have 1 month, I’ll be thinking we didn’t have our (homo sapiens) priorities in the most useful order. Perhaps more practically, a few thousand ton object likely to hit or detonate over a populated area (remember 1908 Tunguska).

    And if you still need to look for life, some of these things will likely be comet frags, they have water, lots of organics and at some points of the orbit they are more hospitable than Mars. Leave discovery of Martians for the humans 100-200 years from now, imo. don
    ps, if this has already been discussed, sorry!

  12. Max Says:
    “Christians are generally more receptive to the idea of alien life than many scientists.”

    Max this sounds very funny, it is like that you mean you are Either Christian or scientist, but not both. 😉

    But I think I understand what you mean, scientists tend to be less optimistic about life out there compared to normal people that have an open mind.

    But trust me, a lot of scientiss do believe in a god and many scientists do believe in life out there, but as long as there is no real evidence, they tend to be more realistic and skeptical than just blind believe in anything.

    What they probably going to tell you is: that the probability of life out there is realistic but the probability that we will ever see other live is very improbable since space is very big an the other planets are pretty far. to ever get there or have a serious communication channel that does not take 8 years to get a responce back.

  13. “a predatory nematode about a sixteenth of an inch long”

    1/16-in = 1.6 mm

  14. We will find evidence of past life really soon and that will speed up the exploration of Mars. I surely hope it doesn’t take ten more years, cuz, theoretically we should have found it by now. We need to GET THERE with real geologists and scientists.

    We have wasted an inexcusable amount of time in our space program, specifically in finding cheaper, better and more efficient means of propulsion.

    The public has got to get over the fear of “nuclear” fetish if we ever want to travel anywhere in space !!!

  15. I have no doubt eventually quite a few or so are discovered and will be about the same mass and environment of Earths. There will be a big brief hullow-ballow, then forgotten. If a system is 50LY away, and a very rare situation some artificial signals are coming from that planet, how many centuries will it take to even have a most elementary of ‘talk’,
    the distance is so great, the hazards may be found to be too dangerous for living lifeforms and to even send a probe will be the next millinium at best and still take a few hundred years-1 question will be answered but the other important questions may never be answered

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