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Is there life on Mars?

Is there life on Mars?

Is there life on Mars?

Does a meteorite found in the Antarctic hold evidence of life on Mars?

Deep Space is the last great frontier. Each new image captured by telescopes brings up the age-old question:  Is there life somewhere else in the universe?

Some imagined the answer would come from a spaceship carrying aliens from a faraway civilization. But, in fact, the truth might be hidden in this ordinary-looking piece of meteorite known as Rock #84-001. It came from the planet Mars and traveled millions of miles over millions of years until it slammed into Earth. Richard Berendzen, professor of astronomy at American University, says it may forever change the way we view the universe:

“This meteorite, if it should prove true, would be literally one of the turning points, one of the defining epochs in all of human exploration and discovery.  I think it’d be almost an icon for the twentieth century.”

Kathie Thomas-Keprta is a planetary geologist with Lockheed Martin;

“It still shocks me that we have found what we’ve found, and we’re able to present it.  I would have never dreamed anything like this in a million years.”

Fossils were found on the rock

Fossils were found on the rock

Some scientists theorized that the seeds for life on Earth were planted by microorganisms from Mars. Ironically, what may prove to be the most remarkable discovery in the history of mankind began with a completely unremarkable event.  In December of 1984, Dr. Robert Score was among a team of American scientists on a geological expedition searching for meteorites in Antarctica. Dr. Score picked up the rock now known as #84-001. It weighed only 4.2 pounds and was the size of a large potato. No one paid much attention to it. For eight years, it sat on a shelf gathering dust. Donald W. Goldsmith is the author of “The Hunt For Life On Mars”:

“This meteorite was essentially misclassified, or not very carefully classified, as an ordinary Earth meteorite.  And only later, when a geologist named David Middlefeld looked at it more carefully, did he realize, no, this is characteristic of a Martian meteorite.  It has just the precise ratio of certain isotopes that make it clear that it came from Mars.”

As it turned out, 84-001 was only the 12th Martian meteorite ever found. It is 4.5 billion years old, almost as old as our solar system, and existed at least one billion years before life on Earth began. A team of NASA scientists finally analyzed the rock. Deep within, were what appeared to be signs of life:  the fossilized remains of dozens of incredibly tiny microorganisms. Dr. Everett K. Gibson is senior planetary scientist with NASA:

“It’s not a smoking gun, as we said in our paper. We have not found proof of living biogenic activity in this Martian sample. But we have a trail of evidence.”

For a scientist, “a trail of evidence” is like a map to buried treasure. However, this map goes back in time as well as taking us to a different place.  It suggests a remarkable journey that began on Mars, four and a half billion years ago, when our solar system was just taking shape. At the same time that #84-001 was being formed, Mars was being bombarded by a catastrophic meteor storm. Its surface was left covered with craters and crevices. Dr. Everett K. Gibson:

“Early in the history of Mars, we feel it was warmer and it was wetter. There was an abundance of water on the surface of the planet. The atmosphere was more dense, liquid water moved across the surface of the planet, it also percolated down through the cracks.”

A piece of a meteorite from Mars

A piece of a meteorite from Mars

Over the next 500 million years, chemical reactions in this “primeval soup” apparently produced a primitive life form. As the water evaporated, the microscopic life forms were enclosed in rock and became fossilized. According to Everett Gibson, one such rock may have been #84-001:

“Then it sat on the surface of the planet for a period of time, up until 16 million years ago, when a large meteorite, or comet possibly, slammed into the surface of Mars, with enough energy that it caused it to be lifted off the surface of Mars and escaped the gravitational field of the planet. It traveled through space for 16 million years, and 13,000 years ago, fell on the ice fields of the Antarctic. It lay on the ice fields until in 1984, Robbie Score picked it up, and the rest is history.”

While the organisms in #84-001 were fossilized, it’s quite possible that other meteorites carried living organisms all the way to Earth. These organisms could have been the source of all life on our planet. Author Donald Goldsmith says that the origin of the human race may, in fact, be Mars:

“There’s no doubt that life could have originated on Mars and come to Earth billions of years ago. This kind of process, where something hits Mars and knocks pieces loose, it’s just as possible more or less that life could have originated on Earth, and gone to Mars.”

The possibilities are enough to excite even the most skeptical scientist. But they warn that #84-001 is not definitive proof of life on Mars. Richard Berendzen says a follow up mission is needed:

“What we really need to do is to send a sample return mission, dig up Martian soil, dig up a rock, ideally from a meter or two beneath the soil, bring it back, chemically analyze it in a pristine lab, find a cell, it’s done.”

On December 4th, 1996, the unmanned Pathfinder spacecraft took off for Mars. During its nine month visit to the “Red Planet”, Pathfinder collected more than 17,000 images and performed more than a dozen chemical studies of rocks, soil and weather data.  But to look for signs of life, says David McKay, we’ll have to dig:

“We’re really intrigued by the possibility that life may still exist on Mars.  And if it does exist, it almost has to exist underneath the surface.”

Geologist Dr. Robert C. Anderson with JPL:

“Now that doesn’t mean little green men or UFOs, or anything like that. But it does mean that scientists really do believe that life does exist in other places, and we just have to find it.”

NASA scientist Everett Gibson:

“I never dreamed that I would have the opportunity to work on a problem of this magnitude. This is a tremendous awakening to mankind that, hey, we might not be alone in this vast universe in which we reside. Perhaps there are people out there on these other bodies that are also searching for life.” 

During its Phoenix Mission in 2008, NASA landed a robotic spacecraft on the surface of the planet and tested for traces of water in the soil and atmosphere. Scientists still hope to get one step closer to answering the age-old question: Are we alone or is there any other life out there?