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

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