Is there life on other planets? That has been a question raised from the early beginnings of science fiction. The notion was scoffed at as pure mind play for dreamers and the occasional grifter selling rides to the Moon. At least it was until we were able to reach into space and discover new facts and gather new intel.
The possibility of life on Mars(outside sci-fi books) had been proposed as early as the 1950’s, but there was no real way to prove or disprove the theory until the launch of Mariner 4 in 1965. The spacecraft was able to return the first photographs of the planet’s surface. The news was all bad for those who had hoped for signs of life on the planet. The surface was too extreme and desolate for any type of known life form. The Voyager probes found radiolabeled carbon dioxide, but no organic molecules. Those results give mixed signals and are inconclusive at best. The results have been used to support the possibility of a microorganism named Gillevinia straata.
The Phoenix lander touched down on the Martian surface in May of 2008. The lander dug a trench on the area of the northern pole. No bacteria was found but the samples did contain bound water and carbon dioxide. The most positive evidence of life in the Martian past are meteorites from the planet. 34 exist and 3 show signs of microscopic fossilized bacteria.
Another viable possibility for life on other planets would be those similar to Gliese 581c. These planets are within the habitable zone(for human life) of their main sequence star. These planets appear to have a temperature that would allow liquid water and atmosphere’s that seem spectroscopically close to Earth’s. The information that is needed would detail the greenhouse effect on these planets. If that was available, we would be able to determine suitability for human life.
All of our efforts to answer the question ‘Is there life on other planets?’ are based on finding life that is similar to that on Earth. That is a typically arrogant line of research. Where is it written that the Earth type of life form is pervasive?
If you’d like more info on the search for life on other planets, check out the NASA Astrobiology Institute Homepage, and here’s a link to NASA Planet Quest: Finding Life.
We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Future of Astronomy. Listen here, Episode 188: The Future of Astronomy.