Saturday, 6 August 2011

Swimming on Mars

Getting over the demise of the space shuttle and American manned space flight, this video from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory shows liquid flowing on the surface of the red planet.  Measurements of the temperature in the region shown in these images suggests that the flowing liquid will be water - probably salty water.

Obviously this raises questions about the possibility of life on another planet again.  Life is found everywhere on earth but so far nowhere else in the universe.  There are strong contenders for the possibility of life on some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn where it seems likely that there are oceans of liquid water under thick layers of surface ice.  However, Mars is more like a smaller sister of the earth and it is a lot closer.  These water flows would seem to be a great place to start to look for life.

What would be the implications of finding life on Mars?  It is interesting to speculate how it would affect the views of religious people.  I suspect that very few would have their faith rocked by the revelation that the earth is not unique after all and that life has been formed elsewhere.  No doubt some would claim that their god put it there, although it is not obvious why he would bother to do that if the universe was created for man.

Consider a couple of other options.    Imagine if we found life on Mars and found that it had something like DNA in its cells.  If this DNA was totally different to that found in all living organisms on earth then we would have some great data about the likelihood of abiogenesis in any place where the ingredients of life were available.

On the other hand if we found that the martian life forms shared some features of their DNA with terran life that would be fascinating too.  That might support the hypothesis of panspermia.  Life might have been seeded on earth from a passing comet, and if that has happened then perhaps it has been seeded on other bodies in the solar system.  In many ways I think this would be the more interesting possibility even though it might not inform us so much about the chance of life in other solar systems.

All we need now is a new mission to Mars to search for life.  A manned mission would be best because humans are so much quicker at gathering information than robots.  (I have heard that we might be a factor of 10,000 better at it.)  But in these times of austerity I fear that there is little prospect of that.

It will be a little while before anyone gets chance to swim in the waters of Mars.  Never mind - the water would be pretty chilly anyway!

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