Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Other Life on Mars

I felt like I haven't done a good astrobiology article in awhile. And I wanted to do something a bit different then the normal way we tend to think about life in the Universe. This one is about life on Mars, but in a different sense. It also pulls on an idea I talked about in the Life on Ceres article from a couple weeks back.

Lets just go ahead and throw the big-worded-phrase out there: Unintentional Anthropogenic Panspermia. More simply: human activity might have accidentally brought life to another planet. Specifically, Mars in this case.

OK? Yeah, it is kind of a crazy idea, along with lots of questions of hows and whys. But, like the classic idea of panspermia (that life on Earth was formed somewhere else and seeded here through natural [meteor, asteroid, or comet impact] causes), this idea is purely conjecture. It stands as a pretty fun thought in some astrobiologist heads since there is no way to determine anything definitive right now.

Unlike the idea of the Earth being seeded with life, if humans unintentional brought life to Mars, we may be able to prove it... eventually.

Mars: frozen desert or thriving ecology? (Image Credit: Spirit Rover, NASA)

First, lets take a step back and figure out how exactly Earth-based lifeforms would have made it to Mars. It is a bit ironic that the first missions being sent to Mars to search for life, might have been the ones to have brought it there. After it was clear that the United States had one the race to the Moon in 1969, the Soviet Union turned its eyes towards Mars. A red planet for the red army, the space race was still on.

It turns out that getting to Mars, even with just a probe, was more expensive and difficult than putting a man on the Moon. And if getting there was hard, putting a lander on the surface was even harder. There were numerous failed missions, some of which barely got off the launch platform, others missed Mars entirely and sailed of into space, never to be heard from again.

A few of those probes actually made it to Mars, and the Soviet Union had managed to get six landers to Mars before the famous USA Viking mission. They were known as Mars 2-7 (Mars 1 failed during launch). These were actually fairly sophisticated landers for the time, but they involved little more then crashing a probe into the planet and seeing how long it would last. They didn't provide the wealth of information that the highly successful Viking mission did, but they were many properties of Mars that were previous unknown.

Mars 3 Lander model at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Russia. (Source)

Unfortunately, after this point, the USSR was beginning to run into problems with its space program. They had already been cutting corners, which was beginning to show with the multiple launch failures. But all these failures and the faltering politics brought to an end some of the most ambitious Mars missions on the chalkboard, including sample returns. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, there has been only one failed attempt by Russia to return to Mars, but there are currently plans for a lander on Mars' moon Phobos that will return samples.

So that is a little bit of the early Mars exploration history, with a larger context on Soviet activities. There is a specific reason why to highlight those missions, Mars 2-7. With the exception of 4 and 7, they all made it to the Martian surface. And I also mentioned that the Soviets had been cutting corners. See, they didn't have quite the same idea of procedure we have today. These landers were often poorly decontaminated, if at all. They were likely crawling with microorganism.

Before I have mentioned just how extreme and hardy life can be. This could very well be the case, that some amazing extremophile from our Earth survived a 60 million kilometer trip that lasted months to the surface of Mars. It sounds amazing, it sounds fantastic, it sounds plausible! In the crater of some old Soviet probe in the middle of the cold, dusty Martian desert there could be life from our muddy blue marble, so far from home.

Tardigrade, AKA Water Bear, AKA the baddest animal on Earth, and maybe Mars.

How would our distance brothers be doing? That is a point of contention. The probes could have been entirely sterilized from solar and cosmic activity. Or the microorganisms could still be in a frozen hibernation that they have been in since launch, waiting for the right conditions. Or they might have found just the littlest amount of liquid water nearby and have created a thriving community around the landing site, perhaps even seeping deep into the warmer crust.

If our brothers from Earth have flourished underground, they might have found Martian life not to different from themselves. A recent finding of 'worms' deep in the Earth's crust provides hope for life in similar environments on Mars and other locations. There could be a proverbial 'War of the Worlds' going on between tiny Soviet invaders and native Martians. This is also part of the reason why there is a push for decontamination these days, to not destroy any potential life that might exist or ruin alien environments.

Like I said before, this is conjecture, but it is entirely plausible. And it is testable. If we get to Mars and discover life, it would be fairly simple to determine if the similar to modern Earth-based lifeforms. They would likely carry signatures similar to all other life on Earth, unlike something that developed in a totally isolated Martian environment, which would expect to have a markedly different genetic history.


32 comments:

Necroticism said...

I want a Tardigrade, seems like a durable pet.}

A conjecture, but still, sounds plausible!

JayPower said...

Damn life on mars would be just amazing ;D

HiFi said...

I support this theory. Humans can then claim to be the "ancients" like in the Stargate TV-series. Who knows, with a little bit of luck, and a few divine interventions, it could be possible.

The Angry Lurker said...

I like it, Micro War 1.

Jay said...

If these little earthlings did thrive, Russia would just argue that these were actually intentional, and it was the first step in their Martian terra-forming plan. :D

Astronomy Pirate said...

Actually Jay, I want to write something soon about terraforming Mars. Mostly how it would eventually be a lost cause because of problems with the physical properties of Mars itself.

Dejch said...

i would live on mars if i could.. i would be like tom hanks in the movie cast away :)

Solsby Kid said...

Man would be crazy if there was life on mars!

Moobeat said...

great post!

Patti D. said...

Very interesting, the Unintentional Anthropogenic Panspermia phenomenon is quite good.
By the way, I had a post in my blog about the tardigrade, you can check it out here

Icepax_Nmir said...

Wow, great post... I don't think that those microbes could survive there though... But it does open perspectives... :p

Banacek said...

So we are unintentionally creating space mutants that will eventually rise up and battle Earth for control of the solar system? Am I reading this correctly?

Dave said...

It would be great if we could inhabit Mars. Last year I saw a pic of the Sun setting on Mars and to all intents and purposes it could have been a pic taken on Earth. It was a spellbinding photo to say the least. Great post.

Melanie said...

Awesome post! We were actually talking about "water bears" all weekend because my son kept playing in the moss! Those things are amazing!

phthalo. said...

Interesting ideas!

Rorschach Redemption said...

I'm surprised how you didn't mention that in one of the landers that the ol' USSR got on the surface purposly carried the organism of a super-race that is just lying dormant. There *IS* like on Mars.
2013. Expect it.

Sorry; I'm surprised you don't get more fringed lunatics here with your content.

bruno said...

I think in Arthur C. Clarke's 3001 they were terraforming Mars by throwing comets on the planet. Easy.

Lost.in.Idaho said...

Mommy, why do the martians have Russian accents and are saying "take me to your vodka?"

Well, you see...

Great post. And go Russia!

MOPI: Today's Post - It's Raining Men ...in flannel...

Erika said...

Tardigrades haunt my brain..... Seem to just pop up everywhere!!

Shelby Fox said...

It's only a matter of time before they find life in the universe. Mars was a good start. Let's hope they find more in my lifetime.

Malkavian said...

The immortal Water bear, he lives on and keeps going and going and going...

Mary said...

Your theory really fascinates me. Great article.

Vince^_^ said...

Life on another planet would be amazing :)

Biff Tanner said...

O God no, not the water bears! We can't beat them. ha ha ha

Great article BTW

ed said...

i dont think we'll live there in our lifetime

Kicking Rocks said...

they should forget mars and go to other planets.....like jupiter!

pixel said...

that water bear looks sweet!

Admin said...

Good astrobiology article.

Rob said...

I like that water bear guy, he fights microbes and doesn't afraid of anything.

H A R R Y G O A Z said...

Have a SUPER weekend !

thenitefalls said...

Life is going to be like Cowboy Bebop! I hope to see that perspective one day :D

FateIT said...

I for one look forward to our Martian overlords. :)

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