‘Oumuamua caused quite a stir when it visited our Solar System in 2017. It didn’t stay long, however, and when it was spotted with the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii on October 19th, it was already leaving. But its appearance in our part of the Universe spawned a lot of conjecture on its nature and its origins.Continue reading “Astronomers Finally Think They Understand Where Interstellar Object Oumuamua Came From and How it Formed”
From the study of meteorite fragments that have fallen to Earth, scientists have confirmed that bacteria can not only survive the harsh conditions of space but can transport biological material between planets. Because of how common meteorite impacts were when life emerged on Earth (ca. 4 billion years ago), scientists have been pondering whether they may have delivered the necessary ingredients for life to thrive.
In a recent study, an international team led by astrobiologist Tetyana Milojevic from the University of Vienna examined a specific type of ancient bacteria that are known to thrive on extraterrestrial meteorites. By examining a meteorite that contained traces of this bacteria, the team determined that these bacteria prefer to feed on meteors – a find which could provide insight into how life emerged on Earth.Continue reading “A Microorganism With a Taste for Meteorites Could Help us Understand the Formation of Life on Earth”
For over a century, proponents of Panspermia have argued that life is distributed throughout our galaxy by comets, asteroids, space dust, and planetoids. But in recent years, scientists have argued that this type of distribution may go beyond star systems and be intergalactic in scale. Some have even proposed intriguing new mechanisms for how this distribution could take place.
For instance, it is generally argued that meteorite and asteroid impacts are responsible for kicking up the material that would transport microbes to other planets. However, in a recent study, two Harvard astronomers examine the challenges that this would present and suggest another means – Earth-grazing objects that collect microbes from our atmosphere and then get flung into deep-space.Continue reading “Comets and Interstellar Objects Could be Exporting Earth Life Out into the Milky Way”
For almost two centuries, scientists have theorized that life may be distributed throughout the Universe by meteoroids, asteroids, planetoids, and other astronomical objects. This theory, known as Panspermia, is based on the idea that microorganisms and the chemical precursors of life are able to survive being transported from one star system to the next.
Expanding on this theory, a team of researchers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) conducted a study that considered whether panspermia could be possible on a galactic scale. According to the model they created, they determined that the entire Milky Way (and even other galaxies) could be exchanging the components necessary for life.
On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid, named 1I/2017 U1 (aka. ‘Oumuamua). Originally thought to be a comet, this interstellar visitor quickly became the focus of follow-up studies that sought to determine its origin, structure, composition, and rule out the possibility that it was an alien spacecraft!
While ‘Oumuamua is the first known example of an interstellar asteroid reaching our Solar System, scientists have long suspected that such visitors are a regular occurrence. Aiming to determine just how common, a team of researchers from Harvard University conducted a study to measure the capture rate of interstellar asteroids and comets, and what role they may play in the spread of life throughout the Universe.
The study, titled “Implications of Captured Interstellar Objects for Panspermia and Extraterrestrial Life“, recently appeared online and is being considered for publication in The Astrophysical Journal. The study was conducted by Manasavi Lingam, a postdoc at the Harvard Institute for Theory and Computation (ITC), and Abraham Loeb, the chairman of the ITC and a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).
For the sake of their study, Lingam and Loeb constructed a three-body gravitational model, where the physics of three bodies are used to compute their respective trajectories and interactions with one another. In Lingam and Loeb’s model, Jupiter and the Sun served as the two massive bodies while a far less massive interstellar object served as the third. As Dr. Loeb explained to Universe Today via email:
“The combined gravity of the Sun and Jupiter acts as a ‘fishing net’. We suggest a new approach to searching for life, which is to examine the interstellar objects captured by this fishing net instead of the traditional approach of looking through telescope or traveling with spacecrafts to distant environments to do the same.”
Using this model, the pair then began calculating the rate at which objects comparable in size to ‘Oumuamua would be captured by the Solar System, and how often such objects would collide with the Earth over the course of its entire history. They also considered the Alpha Centauri system as a separate case for the sake of comparison. In this binary system, Alpha Centauri A and B serve as the two massive bodies and an interstellar asteroid as the third.
As Dr. Lingam indicated:
“The frequency of these objects is determined from the number density of such objects, which has been recently updated based on the discovery of ‘Oumuamua. The size distribution of these objects is unknown (and serves as a free parameter in our model), but for the sake of obtaining quantitative results, we assumed that it was similar to that of comets within our Solar System.”
In the end, they determined that a few thousands captured objects might be found within the Solar system at any time – the largest of which would be tens of km in radius. For the Alpha Centauri system, the results were even more interesting. Based on the likely rate of capture, and the maximum size of a captured object, they determined that even Earth-sized objects could have been captured in the course of the system’s history.
In other words, Alpha Centauri may have picked up some rogue planets over time, which would have had drastic impact on the evolution of the system. In this vein, the authors also explored how objects like ‘Oumuamua could have played a role in the distribution of life throughout the Universe via rocky bodies. This is a variation on the theory of lithopanspermia, where microbial life is shared between planets thanks to asteroids, comets and meteors.
In this scenario, interstellar asteroids, which originate in distant star systems, would be the be carriers of microbial life from one system to another. If such asteroids collided with Earth in the past, they could be responsible for seeding our planet and leading to the emergence of life as we know it. As Lingam explained:
“These interstellar objects could either crash directly into a planet and thus seed it with life, or be captured into the planetary system and undergo further collisions within that system to yield interplanetary panspermia (the second scenario is more likely when the captured object is large, for e.g. a fraction of the Earth’s radius).”
In addition, Lingam and Loeb offered suggestions on how future visitors to our Solar System could be studied. As Lingam summarized, the key would be to look for specific kinds of spectra from objects in our Solar Systems:
“It may be possible to look for interstellar objects (captured/unbound) in our Solar system by looking at their trajectories in detail. Alternatively, since many objects within the Solar system have similar ratios of oxygen isotopes, finding objects with very different isotopic ratios could indicate their interstellar origin. The isotope ratios can be determined through high-resolution spectroscopy if and when interstellar comets approach close to the Sun.”
“The simplest way to single out the objects who originated outside the Solar System, is to examine the abundance ratio of oxygen isotopes in the water vapor that makes their cometary tails,” added Loeb. “This can be done through high resolution spectroscopy. After identifying a trapped interstellar object, we could launch a probe that will search on its surface for signatures of primitive life or artifacts of a technological civilization.”
It would be no exaggeration to say that the discovery of ‘Oumuamua has set off something of a revolution in astronomy. In addition to validating something astronomers have long suspected, it has also provided new opportunities for research and the testing of scientific theories (such as lithopanspermia).
In the future, with any luck, robotic missions will be dispatched to these bodies to conduct direct studies and maybe even sample return missions. What these reveal about our Universe, and maybe even the spread of life throughout, is sure to be very illuminating!
Further Reading: arXiv
The theory of Panspermia states that life exists through the cosmos, and is distributed between planets, stars and even galaxies by asteroids, comets, meteors and planetoids. In this respect, life began on Earth about 4 billion years ago after microorganisms hitching a ride on space rocks landed on the surface. Over the years, considerable research has been devoted towards demonstrating that the various aspects of this theory work.
The latest comes from the University of Edinburgh, where Professor Arjun Berera offers another possible method for the transport of life-bearing molecules. According to his recent study, space dust that periodically comes into contact with Earth’s atmosphere could be what brought life to our world billions of years ago. If true, this same mechanism could be responsible for the distribution of life throughout the Universe.
For the sake of his study, which was recently published in Astrobiology under the title “Space Dust Collisions as a Planetary Escape Mechanism“, Prof. Berera examined the possibility that space dust could facilitate the escape of particles from Earth’s atmosphere. These include molecules that indicate the presence of life on Earth (aka. biosignatures), but also microbial life and molecules that are essential to life.
Fast-moving flows of interplanetary dust impact our atmosphere on a regular basis, at a rate of about 100,000 kg (110 tons) a day. This dust ranges in mass from 10-18 to 1 gram, and can reach speeds of 10 to 70 km/s (6.21 to 43.49 mps). As a result, this dust is capable of impacting Earth with enough energy to knock molecules out of the atmosphere and into space.
These molecules would consist largely of those that are present in the thermosphere. At this level, those particles would consist largely of chemically disassociated elements, such as molecular nitrogen and oxygen. But even at this high altitude, larger particles – such as those that are capable of harboring bacteria or organic molecules – have also been known to exist. As Dr. Berera states in his study:
“For particles that form the thermosphere or above or reach there from the ground, if they collide with this space dust, they can be displaced, altered in form or carried off by incoming space dust. This may have consequences for weather and wind, but most intriguing and the focus of this paper, is the possibility that such collisions can give particles in the atmosphere the necessary escape velocity and upward trajectory to escape Earth’s gravity.”
Of course, the process of molecules escaping our atmosphere presents certain difficulties. For starters, it requires that there be enough upward force that can accelerate these particles to escape velocity speeds. Second, if these particle are accelerated from too low an altitude (i.e. in the stratosphere or below), the atmospheric density will be high enough to create drag forces that will slow the upward-moving particles.
In addition, as a result of their fast upward travel, these particle would undergo immense heating to the point of evaporation. So while wind, lighting, volcanoes, etc. would be capable of imparting huge forces at lower altitudes, they would not be able to accelerate intact particles to the point where they could achieve escape velocity. On the other hand, in the upper part of the mesosphere and thermosphere, particles would not suffer much drag or heating.
As such, Berera concludes that only atoms and molecules that are already found in the higher atmosphere could be propelled into space by space dust collisions. The mechanism for propelling them there would likely consist of a double state approach, whereby they are first hurled into the lower thermosphere or higher by some mechanism and then propelled even harder by fast space dust collision.
After calculating the speed at which space dust impacts our atmosphere, Berera determined that molecules that exist at an altitude of 150 km (93 mi) or higher above Earth’s surface would be knocked beyond the limit of Earth’s gravity. These molecules would then be in near-Earth space, where they could be picked up by passing objects such as comets, asteroid or other Near-Earth Objects (NEO) and carried to other planets.
Naturally, this raises another all-important question, which is whether or not these organisms could survive in space. But as Berera notes, previous studies have borne out the ability of microbes to survive in space:
“Should some microbial particles manage the perilous journey upward and out of the Earth’s gravity, the question remains how well they will survive in the harsh environment of space. Bacterial spores have been left on the exterior of the International Space Station at altitude ~400km, in a near vacuum environment of space, where there is nearly no water, considerable radiation, and with temperatures ranging from 332K on the sun side to 252K on the shadow side, and have survived 1.5 years.”
Another thing Berera considers is the strange case of tardigrades, the eight-legged micro-animals that are also known as “water bears”. Previous experiments have shown that this species is capable of surviving in space, being both strongly resistant to radiation and desiccation. So it is possible that such organisms, if they were knocked out of Earth’s upper atmosphere, could survive long enough to hitch a ride to another planet
“The proposition that space dust collisions could propel organisms over enormous distances between planets raises some exciting prospects of how life and the atmospheres of planets originated. The streaming of fast space dust is found throughout planetary systems and could be a common factor in proliferating life.”
In addition to offering a fresh take on Panspermia, Berera’s study is also significant when it comes to the study of how life evolved on Earth. If biological molecules and bacteria have been escaping Earth’s atmosphere continuously over the course of its existence, then this would suggest that it could still be floating out in the Solar System, possibly within comets and asteroids.
These biological samples, if they could be accessed and studied, would serve as a timeline for the evolution of microbial life on Earth. It’s also possible that Earth-borne bacteria survive today on other planets, possibly on Mars or other bodies where they locked away in permafrost or ice. These colonies would basically be time capsules, containing preserved life that could date back billions of years.
In 2015, then-NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan stated that, “I believe we are going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth in the next decade and definite evidence in the next 10 to 20 years.” With multiple missions scheduled to search foe evidence of life (past and present) on Mars and in the outer Solar System, this hardly seems like an unrealistic appraisal.
But of course, finding evidence of life is no easy task. In addition to concerns over contamination, there is also the and the hazards the comes with operating in extreme environments – which looking for life in the Solar System will certainly involve. All of these concerns were raised at a new FISO conference titled “Towards In-Situ Sequencing for Life Detection“, hosted by Christopher Carr of MIT.
Carr is a research scientist with MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS) and a Research Fellow with the Department of Molecular Biology at Massachusetts General Hospital. For almost 20 years, he has dedicated himself to the study of life and the search for it on other planets. Hence why he is also the science principal investigator (PI) of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Genomes (SETG) instrument.
Led by Dr. Maria T. Zuber – the E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics at MIT and the head of EAPS – the inter-disciplinary group behind SETG includes researchers and scientists from MIT, Caltech, Brown University, arvard, and Claremont Biosolutions. With support from NASA, the SETG team has been working towards the development of a system that can test for life in-situ.
Introducing the search for extra-terrestrial life, Carr described the basic approach as follows:
“We could look for life as we don’t know it. But I think it’s important to start from life as we know it – to extract both properties of life and features of life, and consider whether we should be looking for life as we know it as well, in the context of searching for life beyond Earth.”
Towards this end, the SETG team seeks to leverage recent developments in in-situ biological testing to create an instrument that can be used by robotic missions. These developments include the creation of portable DNA/RNA testing devices like the MinION, as well as the Biomolecule Sequencer investigation. Performed by astronaut Kate Rubin in 2016, this was first-ever DNA sequencing to take place aboard the International Space Station.
Building on these, and the upcoming Genes in Space program – which will allow ISS crews to sequence and research DNA samples on site – the SETG team is looking to create an instrument that can isolate, detect, and classify any DNA or RNA-based organisms in extra-terrestrial environments. In the process, it will allow scientists to test the hypothesis that life on Mars and other locations in the Solar System (if it exists) is related to life on Earth.
To break this hypothesis down, it is a widely accepted theory that the synthesis of complex organics – which includes nucleobases and ribose precursors – occurred early in the history of the Solar System and took place within the Solar nebula from which the planets all formed. These organics may have then been delivered by comets and meteorites to multiple potentially-habitable zones during the Late Heavy Bombardment period.
Known as lithopansermia, this theory is a slight twist on the idea that life is distributed throughout the cosmos by comets, asteroids and planetoids (aka. panspermia). In the case of Earth and Mars, evidence that life might be related is based in part on meteorite samples that are known to have come to Earth from the Red Planet. These were themselves the product of asteroids striking Mars and kicking up ejecta that was eventually captured by Earth.
By investigating locations like Mars, Europa and Enceladus, scientists will also be able to engage in a more direct approach when it comes to searching for life. As Carr explained:
“There’s a couple main approaches. We can take an indirect approach, looking at some of the recently identified exoplanets. And the hope is that with the James Webb Space Telescope and other ground-based telescopes and space-based telescopes, that we will be in a position to begin imaging the atmospheres of exoplanets in much greater detail than characterization of those exoplanets has [allowed for] to date. And that will give us high-end, it will give the ability to look at many different potential worlds. But it’s not going to allow us to go there. And we will only have indirect evidence through, for example, atmospheric spectra.”
Mars, Europa and Enceladus present a direct opportunity to find life since all have demonstrated conditions that are (or were) conducive to life. Whereas there is ample evidence that Mars once had liquid water on its surface, Europa and Enceladus both have subsurface oceans and have shown evidence of being geologically active. Hence, any mission to these worlds would be tasked with looking in the right locations to spot evidence of life.
On Mars, Carr notes, this will come down to looking in places there there is a water-cycle, and will likely involve some a little spelunking:
“I think our best bet is to access the subsurface. And this is very hard. We need to drill, or otherwise access regions below the reach of space radiation which could destroy organic materiel. And one possibility is to go to fresh impact craters. These impact craters could expose material that wasn’t radiation-processed. And maybe a region where we might want to go would be somewhere where a fresh impact crater could connect to a deeper subsurface network – where we could get access to material perhaps coming out of the subsurface. I think that is probably our best bet for finding life on Mars today at the moment. And one place we could look would be within caves; for example, a lava tube or some other kind of cave system that could offer UV-radiation shielding and maybe also provide some access to deeper regions within the Martian surface.”
As for “ocean worlds” like Enceladus, looking for signs of life would likely involve exploring around its southern polar region where tall plumes of water have been observed and studied in the past. On Europa, it would likely involve seeking out “chaos regions”, the spots where there may be interactions between the surface ice and the interior ocean.
Exploring these environments naturally presents some serious engineering challenges. For starters, it would require the extensive planetary protections to ensure that contamination was prevented. These protections would also be necessary to ensure that false positives were avoided. Nothing worse than discovering a strain of DNA on another astronomical body, only to realize that it was actually a skin flake that fell into the scanner before launch!
And then there are the difficulties posed by operating a robotic mission in an extreme environment. On Mars, there is always the issue of solar radiation and dust storms. But on Europa, there is the added danger posed by Jupiter’s intense magnetic environment. Exploring water plumes coming from Enceladus is also very challenging for an orbiter that would most likely be speeding past the planet at the time.
But given the potential for scientific breakthroughs, such a mission it is well worth the aches and pains. Not only would it allow astronomers to test theories about the evolution and distribution of life in our Solar System, it could also facilitate the development of crucial space exploration technologies, and result in some serious commercial applications.
Looking to the future, advances in synthetic biology are expected to lead to new treatments for diseases and the ability to 3-D print biological tissues (aka. “bioprinting”). It will also help ensure human health in space by addressing bone density loss, muscle atrophy, and diminished organ and immune-function. And then there’s the ability to grow organisms specially-designed for life on other planets (can you say terraforming?)
On top of all that, the ability to conduct in-situ searches for life on other Solar planets also presents scientists with the opportunity to answer a burning question, one which they’ve struggled with for decades. In short, is carbon-based life universal? So far, any and all attempts to answer this question have been largely theoretical and have involved the “low hanging fruit variety” – where we have looked for signs of life as we know it, using mainly indirect methods.
By finding examples that come from environments other than Earth, we would be taking some crucial steps towards preparing ourselves for the kinds of “close encounters” that could be happening down the road.
Back in February of 2017, NASA announced the discovery of a seven-planet system orbiting a nearby star. This system, known as TRAPPIST-1, is of particular interest to astronomers because of the nature and orbits of the planets. Not only are all seven planets terrestrial in nature (i.e. rocky), but three of the seven have been confirmed to be within the star’s habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”).
But beyond the chance that some of these planets could be inhabited, there is also the possibility that their proximity to each other could allow for life to be transferred between them. That is the possibility that a team of scientists from the University of Chicago sought to address in a new study. In the end, they concluded that bacteria and single-celled organisms could be hopping from planet to planet.
This study, titled “Fast Litho-panspermia in the Habitable Zone of the TRAPPIST-1 System“, was recently published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. For the sake of seeing if life could be distributed within this star system (aka. litho-panspermia), Krijt and his fellow UChicago scientists ran simulations that showed that this process could happen 4 to 5 times faster than it would in our Solar System.
As Sebastiaan Krijt – a postdoctoral scholar at UChicago and the lead author on the study – said in a University press release:
“Frequent material exchange between adjacent planets in the tightly packed TRAPPIST-1 system appears likely. If any of those materials contained life, it’s possible they could inoculate another planet with life.”
For the sake of their study, the team considered that any transfers of life would likely involve asteroids or comets striking planets within the star’s habitable zone (HZ) and then transferring the resulting material to other planets. They then simulated the trajectories that the ejecta would take, and tested to see if it would have the necessary speed to get out of orbit (escape velocity) and be captured by a neighboring planet’s gravity.
In the end, they determined that roughly 10% of the material that would be capable of transferring life would have the velocity necessary to not only achieve escape velocity. This covered the pieces of ejecta that would be large enough to endure irradiation and the heat of re-entry. What’s more, they found that this material would be able to reach another HZ planet with periods ranging from 10 to 100 years.
For over a century, scientists have considered the possibility that life may be distributed throughout our Universe by meteoroids, asteroids, comets, and planetoids. Similarly, multiple studies have been conducted to see if the building blocks of life could have come to Earth (and been distributed throughout the Solar System) in the same way.
Every year, an estimated 36,287 metric tons (40,000 tons) of space debris falls to Earth, and material that has been ejected from our planet is floating around out in space as well. And we know for a fact that Earth and Mars have exchanged material on several occasions, where Martian ejecta kicked up by asteroids and comets was thrown into space and eventually collided with our planet.
As such, studies like this can help us to understand how life came to be in our Solar System. At the same time, they can illustrate how in other star systems, the process may be far more intense. As Fred Ciesla – a professor of geophysical sciences at UChicago and a co-author of the paper – explained:
“Given that tightly packed planetary systems are being detected more frequently, this research will make us rethink what we expect to find in terms of habitable planets and the transfer of life—not only in the TRAPPIST-1 system, but elsewhere. We should be thinking in terms of systems of planets as a whole, and how they interact, rather than in terms of individual planets.”
And with all the exoplanets discoveries made of late – which can only be described as explosive – opportunities for research are similarly exploding. In total, some 3,483 exoplanets have been confirmed so far, with an additional 4,496 candidates awaiting confirmation. Of the confirmed planets, 581 have been found to exist within multi-planet systems (like TRAPPIST-1), each of which present the possibility of litho-panspermia.
By studying more and more in the way of distant planets, we can reach beyond our own Solar System to see how planets evolve, interact, and how life can come to exist on them. And someday, we may actually be able to study them up close! One can only imagine what we may find…
Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)
This week’s special guest is Brad Peterson. Brad is a returning guest, and since his last appearance, he has been asked by NASA to serve as a community co-chair, with Debra Fischer of Yale, for the Science and Technology Definition Team for the Large Ultraviolet, Optical, and Infrared Surveyor (LUVOIR).
Brad has carried out research on active galactic nuclei for his entire career. He has been developing the technique of reverberation mapping for over 25 years. He is currently on appointment at STScI as Distinguished Visiting Astronomer, after retiring from the faculty of The Ohio State University in 2015 with 35 years of service, the last nine as chair of the Department of Astronomy. He is also a member of the NASA Advisory Council, for which he chairs the Science Committee. He was recently named chair-elect for the Astronomy Section of the AAAS.
Their stories this week:
We use a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!
On Friday, May 12, the WSH will welcome authors Michael Summers and James Trefil to the show to discuss their new book, Exoplanets: Diamond Worlds, Super Earths, Pulsar Planets and the New Search for Life Beyond Our Solar System. In anticipation of their appearance, the WSH Crew is pleased to offer our viewers a chance to win one of two hard cover copies of Exoplanets. Two winners will be drawn live by @fraser during our show on May 12th. To enter for a chance to win a copy of Exoplanets, send an email to: [email protected] with the Subject: Exoplanets. Be sure to include your name and email address in the body of your message so that we can contact the winners afterward. All entries must be electronically postmarked by 23:59 EST on May 10, 2017, in order to be eligible. No purchase necessary. Two winners will be selected at random from all eligible entries. Good luck!
If you’d like to join Fraser and Paul Matt Sutter on their tour to Iceland in February 2018, you can find the information at astrotouring.com.
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Perhaps the most important question we can possible ask is, “are we alone in the Universe?”.
And so far, the answer has been, “I don’t know”. I mean, it’s a huge Universe, with hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way, and now we learn there are trillions of galaxies in the Universe.
Is there life closer to home? What about in the Solar System? There are a few existing places we could look for life close to home. Really any place in the Solar System where there’s liquid water. Wherever we find water on Earth, we find life, so it make sense to search for places with liquid water in the Solar System.
I know, I know, life could take all kinds of wonderful forms. Enlightened beings of pure energy, living among us right now. Or maybe space whales on Titan that swim through lakes of ammonia. Beep boop silicon robot lifeforms that calculate the wasted potential of our lives.
Sure, we could search for those things, and we will. Later. We haven’t even got this basic problem done yet. Earth water life? Check! Other water life? No idea.
It turns out, water’s everywhere in the Solar System. In comets and asteroids, on the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn, especially Europa or Enceladus. Or you could look for life on Mars.
Mars is similar to Earth in many ways, however, it’s smaller, has less gravity, a thinner atmosphere. And unfortunately, it’s bone dry. There are vast polar caps of water ice, but they’re frozen solid. There appears to be briny liquid water underneath the surface, and it occasionally spurts out onto the surface. Because it’s close and relatively easy to explore, it’s been the place scientists have gone looking for past or current life.
Researchers tried to answer the question with NASA’s twin Viking Landers, which touched down in 1976. The landers were both equipped with three biology experiments. The researchers weren’t kidding around, they were going to nail this question: is there life on Mars?
In the first experiment, they took soil samples from Mars, mixed in a liquid solution with organic and inorganic compounds, and then measured what chemicals were released. In a second experiment, they put Earth organic compounds into Martian soil, and saw carbon dioxide released. In the third experiment, they heated Martian soil and saw organic material come out of the soil.
Three experiments, and stuff happened in all three. Stuff! Pretty exciting, right? Unfortunately, there were equally plausible non-biological explanations for each of the results. The astrobiology community wasn’t convinced, and they still fight in brutal cage matches to this day. It was ambitious, but inconclusive. The worst kind of conclusive.
Researchers found more inconclusive evidence in 1994. Ugh, there’s that word again. They were studying a meteorite that fell in Antarctica, but came from Mars, based on gas samples taken from inside the rock.
They thought they found evidence of fossilized bacterial life inside the meteorite. But again, there were too many explanations for how the life could have gotten in there from here on Earth. Life found a way… to burrow into a rock from Mars.
NASA learned a powerful lesson from this experience. If they were going to prove life on Mars, they had to go about it carefully and conclusively, building up evidence that had no controversy.
The Spirit and Opportunity Rovers were an example of building up this case cautiously. They were sent to Mars in 2004 to find evidence of water. Not water today, but water in the ancient past. Old water Over the course of several years of exploration, both rovers turned up multiple lines of evidence there was water on the surface of Mars in the ancient past.
They found concretions, tiny pebbles containing iron-rich hematite that forms on Earth in water. They found the mineral gypsum; again, something that’s deposited by water on Earth.
NASA’s Curiosity Rover took this analysis to the next level, arriving in 2012 and searching for evidence that water was on Mars for vast periods of time; long enough for Martian life to evolve.
Once again, Curiosity found multiple lines of evidence that water acted on the surface of Mars. It found an ancient streambed near its landing site, and drilled into rock that showed the region was habitable for long periods of time.
In 2014, NASA turned the focus of its rovers from looking for evidence of water to searching for past evidence of life.
Curiosity found one of the most interesting targets: a strange strange rock formations while it was passing through an ancient riverbed on Mars. While it was examining the Gillespie Lake outcrop in Yellowknife Bay, it photographed sedimentary rock that looks very similar to deposits we see here on Earth. They’re caused by the fossilized mats of bacteria colonies that lived billions of years ago.
Not life today, but life when Mars was warmer and wetter. Still, fossilized life on Mars is better than no life at all. But there might still be life on Mars, right now, today. The best evidence is not on its surface, but in its atmosphere. Several spacecraft have detected trace amounts of methane in the Martian atmosphere.
Methane is a chemical that breaks down quickly in sunlight. If you farted on Mars, the methane from your farts would dissipate in a few hundred years. If spacecraft have detected this methane in the atmosphere, that means there’s some source replenishing those sneaky squeakers. It could be volcanic activity, but it might also be life. There could be microbes hanging on, in the last few places with liquid water, producing methane as a byproduct.
The European ExoMars orbiter just arrived at Mars, and its main job is sniff the Martian atmosphere and get to the bottom of this question.
Are there trace elements mixed in with the methane that means its volcanic in origin? Or did life create it? And if there’s life, where is it located? ExoMars should help us target a location for future study.
NASA is following up Curiosity with a twin rover designed to search for life. The Mars 2020 Rover will be a mobile astrobiology laboratory, capable of scooping up material from the surface of Mars and digesting it, scientifically speaking. It’ll search for the chemicals and structures produced by past life on Mars. It’ll also collect samples for a future sample return mission.
Even if we do discover if there’s life on Mars, it’s entirely possible that we and Martian life are actually related by a common ancestor, that split off billions of years ago. In fact, some astrobiologists think that Mars is a better place for life to have gotten started.
Not the dry husk of a Red Planet that we know today, but a much wetter, warmer version that we now know existed billions of years ago. When the surface of Mars was warm enough for liquid water to form oceans, lakes and rivers. And we now know it was like this for millions of years.
While Earth was still reeling from an early impact by the massive planet that crashed into it, forming the Moon, life on Mars could have gotten started early.
But how could we actually be related? The idea of Panspermia says that life could travel naturally from world to world in the Solar System, purely through the asteroid strikes that were regularly pounding everything in the early days.
Imagine an asteroid smashing into a world like Mars. In the lower gravity of Mars, debris from the impact could be launched into an escape trajectory, free to travel through the Solar System.
We know that bacteria can survive almost indefinitely, freeze dried, and protected from radiation within chunks of space rock. So it’s possible they could make the journey from Mars to Earth, crossing the orbit of our planet.
Even more amazingly, the meteorites that enter the Earth’s atmosphere would protect some of the bacterial inhabitants inside. As the Earth’s atmosphere is thick enough to slow down the descent of the space rocks, the tiny bacterialnauts could survive the entire journey from Mars, through space, to Earth.
If we do find life on Mars, how will we know it’s actually related to us? If Martian life has the similar DNA structure to Earth life, it’s probably related. In fact, we could probably trace the life back to determine the common ancestor, and even figure out when the tiny lifeforms make the journey.
If we do find life on Mars, which is related to us, that just means that life got around the Solar System. It doesn’t help us answer the bigger question about whether there’s life in the larger Universe. In fact, until we actually get a probe out to nearby stars, or receive signals from them, we might never know.
An even more amazing possibility is that it’s not related. That life on Mars arose completely independently. One clue that scientists will be looking for is the way the Martian life’s instructions are encoded. Here on Earth, all life follows “left-handed chirality” for the amino acid building blocks that make up DNA and RNA. But if right-handed amino acids are being used by Martian life, that would mean a completely independent origin of life.
Of course, if the life doesn’t use amino acids or DNA at all, then all bets are off. It’ll be truly alien, using a chemistry that we don’t understand at all.
There are many who believe that Mars isn’t the best place in the Solar System to search for life, that there are other places, like Europa or Enceladus, where there’s a vast amount of liquid water to be explored.
But Mars is close, it’s got a surface you can land on. We know there’s liquid water beneath the surface, and there was water there for a long time in the past. We’ve got the rovers, orbiters and landers on the planet and in the works to get to the bottom of this question. It’s an exciting time to be part of this search.