Has NASA discovered life on Mars? If so, what are the implications?

Something is up with the Curiosity rover mission. Except nobody will tell us what it is. But they’re sure acting like it’s a big deal.

It seems NASA and the Curiosity rover have found something exciting and nerd-tastic on Mars, but the space agency’s scientists are holding back for now, despite how painful it appears to be for them.

NPR science correspondent Joe Palca happened to be in the room recently when John Grotzinger, lead scientist for the Curiosity mission at NASA, started receiving data on his computer from the rover’s on-board chemistry lab, also known as SAM (sample analysis at Mars). SAM and NASA scientists on Earth have been busy analyzing a sample of Martian soil of late, and apparently the dirt from the Red Planet has a secret to tell.

“This data is going to be one for the history books, it’s looking really good,” Grotzinger said in the story that aired yesterday.

And that’s about all he said.

Grotzinger and NASA have remained mum on what exactly Curiosity may have found in the Martian soil, saying it could be several more weeks until they’re able to verify the data. The scientists need to make sure whatever earth-shattering find they have isn’t an error or perhaps some kind of stowaway molecule or whatever it may be that hitched one really long ride from Earth.

Hmmm. So the reporter turned to another source in search of some informed speculation.

Lewis Dartnell is a leading astrobiologist at The Centre For Planetary Sciences at UCL/Birkbeck in London. He makes it clear that with so little to go on, no one outside of NASA can know what the agency thinks it has, but, he says, “the SAM instrument is designed to detect organic molecules on Mars, so the smart money is on an announcement along those lines.”

That’s right, the smart money is on what we all were already thinking — LIFE ON MARS.

Wow. That would be one of the four or five biggest discoveries in human history, wouldn’t it? Or not. The agency has now trotted out a spokesman to hose the rumors down with cold water.

“John was delighted about the quality and range of information coming in from SAM during the day a reporter happened to be sitting in John’s office last week. He has been similarly delighted by results at other points during the mission so far,” spokesman Guy Webster told AFP.

“The scientists want to gain confidence in the findings before taking them outside of the science team. As for history books, the whole mission is for the history books,” Webster said.

So, what can we conclude from these mysterious events? For starters, let’s note that the spokesman with the cold water did not say the speculation was incorrect. He did not deny that Curiosity has found evidence of life on Mars (or, for that matter, actual life on Mars). This is perhaps significant. For sure, I know carefully crafted PR-speak when I see it (having carefully crafted a good bit of it throughout the course of my career), and this is official language that’s scrupulously saying not a damned thing. The whole “it’s all historic!” line is pure misdirection. In other words, the PR statement has made me more suspicious, not less.

Why the secrecy, though? There are a number of possible explanations. For one thing, this is science, and science is about gathering, analyzing and verifying evidence. The timetables this process employs are completely at odds with those preferred by ratings-mad media agencies on a 24/7 “news” cycle. They’re not trying to generate sensational headlines – on the contrary. Until they know precisely what they’re dealing with they’d rather generate no headlines at all, and I’m willing to wager that Dr. Grotzinger has been on the business end of a stern talking-to today for reacting that way in front of a reporter.

Another possibility is that they have uncovered a landmark moment in human history. If so, it so radically alters what we know about the universe and our place in it that official acknowledgement of the discovery requires deep consideration.

Let’s speculate a bit. Say that Curiosity has, in fact, discovered life on Mars. What does it mean? The dominant assumption throughout most of history, driven primarily by religious exceptionalists, was that Earth is home to the only life in the universe. More recently we’ve discovered that the portions of the universe that we can detect, observe and examine contain several Earth-like planets that could theoretically support life. These analyses employ narrow definitions and, obviously, we cannot yet study more than the smallest fraction of the universe. Basic probability suggests that it’s unlikely we’re alone.

Still, it is one thing to speculate that life might exist, or even that it probably exists, and another entirely to have evidence of extra-terrestrial life.

So if NASA has, in fact, discovered life on Mars, it turns our assumptions upside down. Instead of viewing life as something unspeakably rare, if not utterly unique to Earth, we overnight have to assume that life isn’t rare at all – it’s common as dirt. Instead of life being too complex to evolve more than once, it becomes something that evolves as a matter of routine. Put another way, at that stage we will have evidence that life exists on two-thirds of the worlds that we have knowledge of. Never mind what are the odds of life elsewhere in the universe – if it evolved on two planets that are side-by-side, what are the odds that they’re the only two? If you’ll pardon the expression, the chances would be astronomical.

For the moment, we have no idea what’s going on at NASA right now. We do know that there have been other bits of evidence suggesting that the conditions for life may have once existed on Mars, and we know what SAM was designed to look for. It’s therefore not unreasonable to speculate a bit in the spirit of the joy of discovery.

If Curiosity has uncovered extraterrestrial life, I personally cannot wait for the official announcement and the uproar to follow. It might do us arrogant humans good to learn that we have neighbors, even if they’re microscopic ones.

Image Credit: NASA

26 replies »

  1. The timing coincides with the belief held by many that December 2012 will be a new age of enlightenment for mankind. I would welcome the discovery of extraterrestrial life and I hope the delay in NASA’s announcement is a result of their following previously established protocols for such an announcement and not just another over-hyped false alarm.

    • Oh wow, that’s actually really true. I was reading about this in a newspaper and couldn’t help but think of the Mayan Dec. 2012 stuff. Hyper cool.

  2. It appears some teenagers from our secret space station are pissing on the Rover!! When the Rover learns to go underground it will find about 250,000 of our space brothers and sisters.

  3. This is the accumulation,,,,the touch-down,,the Prize most sought beginning with the first Russian Sputnik the Apollo missions,,the Space Station and the four latest Mars Rovers.
    a joe in Texas

      • If they bring back something, then it’ll be a while before it gets here – Curiosity doesn’t have a return vehicle with which to send back samples. We’d need to design, build, launch, travel, acquire, re-launch, return, and re-enter. That’ll take a few years.

        As someone who works in aerospace, however, it would be totally cool to be on the design team(s) that get to do it.

      • Nay,,,,,i’m afraid we are all doomed to die of natural causes.The best that we can hope for is to die in our sleep,,,

  4. Basic probability suggests that it is likely we ARE alone. Have you sat down and done the calculations to see just how complex a protein is, let alone a single cell animal? The calculations are astronomical, and here they are. You tell me that life elsewhere is likely.

    Let’s look at roulette so we can grasp the probabilities. The odds of winning one game at the roulette table is 1 in 38. The probability of the ball falling into a given pocket 100 times consecutively is: 1/38 x 1/38 x 1/38 … 1/38 = 1 in 38^100 or 1 in 10^158. So we can see just how hard that would be.

    Now we know that in each of our cells, we have around 25,000 protein-coding genes (though some count more), which basically map to about the same amount of proteins that do all of the work in each of our 70 trillion or so cells in our bodies. Now look at the requirements for ONE 150-amino acid functional protein to spontaneously form all by itself (and not within the hospitable environment of an already living cell):

    * Peptide bonds: 1 in 10^45
    * Left-handed amino acids: 1 in 10^45 (this is a really hard one, as there is an equal mixture in non-living things, and one way we can determine the length of time a body has been dead)
    * Correct sequence: 1 in 10^74
    * Total chance: 1 in 10^164

    So the probability of this single protein spontaneously forming is lower than you winning 100 consecutive rounds of roulette.

    Now a minimally complex, free living cell needs 1350 proteins, while a minimally complex parasite needs about 350 proteins (mycoplasma genitalium). But let’s just assume 250 proteins (which we know is not life and wouldn’t be free living anyway).

    250 proteins spontaneously form (with no DNA directing synthesis, remember): 1 in 10^41,000

    Here are the probabilistic resources we have to work with given the entire history of the universe:

    * Particles in universe: 10^80
    * Seconds since Big Bang: 10^16
    * Possible interactions per second: 10^43
    * Total possible events since beginning of universe: 10^139

    So you can see that the probability of 250 proteins spontaneously forming is 1 in 10^41,000, but you only have 10^139 possible events since the beginning of the universe 13.7 billion years ago (as the smallest unit of time is the Planck time). That is precisely why I say 13.7 billion years isn’t a lot of time. It is a drop in the bucket. So next time someone says “A LOT can happen in 13.7 billion years,” this is true, but not near as much as they think. In fact, they are orders of magnitude off. It’s not even enough time to for a single protein to spontaneously form by chance, let alone 1,350 of them (the smallest free living cell) to come together in a coacervate along with the instructions in DNA and the required mechanisms needed to continually create new proteins for the operation of the cell. It’s the classic chicken and the egg problem. If you don’t have the machinery to read DNA and translate it into proteins, then you don’t have life. If you don’t have DNA then there is nothing that the machinery has to use as the template for creating the proteins needed for a cell to function. I’m talking here at the level of the single cell, not even multicellular organisms, and certainly not humans with consciousness and the ability to even ponder DNA.

    • The odds of something happening are a MOO point after the fact. Probability being as you claim perhaps you have proven that the game is rigged. The question is are we an aberration or the normal progression? Are forces at work that we are unaware of that makes life not only possible but inevitable?

    • Interesting, but it assumes that life only evolves exactly as it has on Earth. Also, remember that many Earth life forms have evolved independently. I’ve not seen any evidence that the Universe is finite. So, in an potentially infinite Universe it seems unlikely that we could only have a finite number of particles. More likely is that evolution is played out in an infinite number of ways in an infinite number of solar systems and universes, multi-universes, and parallel universes.

      My bet is that just our universe has an almost infinite variety of lifeforms, and we’re just one of these. It may make you feel insignificant, but if you could develop and infinite awareness, perhaps not so…

  5. Even if there is life thre it could have common origin with that on Earth. We already found rocks from Mars (meteorites) on Earth and their examination shows that they could provide shielding good enough to allow transfer of live cells from their origin. So It could mean that exchange between both planets occured and that life is common as dirt in the rest of the Universe would not be a foregone conclusion.

    • Seb: Say I buy your assumptions. That would, at a minimum, mean that the seeding meteorites came from somewhere else with those life components. So as I read it, that would mean there was life elsewhere by definition, wouldn’t it?

      • Even if NASA has discovered life on Mars, here is the course of events:

        1). Geeks discover 100% positive biochemical materials for life or actual life in the form of microbes or insects, etc.

        2). Military decide that such an announcement is not in their interests as it might lead to more pressure to disclose other evidence of extraterrestrial life which the Military has been keeping secret for decades.

        3). Geeks and other NASA personnel announce that they were wrong, and that Mars is and always has been a lifeless planet, and it looks like we Earthlings are all alone in the Universe just like most people want to believe.

        4). End of story until a Geek decides to talk, then he dies overnight of cancer or falls off a cliff, etc…

        5). Conspiracy theorists write books and movies about if for another 20 years.

        The truth is out there, but buried in lies and bullshit.

        • General Petraeus is a perfect example of how easy it is for the Military to keep a secret. If there was “truth out there” that was intended to be suppressed by the Military, by now Big Bird and Britney Spears would know about it.

  6. General Petraeus broke his own rule about indiscretion He didn’t tolerate it from those under his command. Indiscretionis not bad behavior. Indiscretions are you get caught. Complex ethical issue?

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