Life on Mars

Map of Mars. The most up-to-date reports from the European Mars Express mission confirm the presence of large quantities of ice-held water at the Red Planet’s South Pole.

THE IDEA THAT the Earth could be invaded by a marauding army of creatures from Mars is a scene now suitable only for vintage science-fiction – with the advent of modern technology and better understanding, even our creative writers have progressed. The suggestion that intelligent life forms live so close to Earth is now too implausible for fiction. But as we learn more about the universe, so our intelligence contradicts old, established beliefs. Can it be true that conventional wisdom is wrong? In 1976, Viking Orbiter 1 was sent to scan the surface of Mars. The craft was designed to photograph the planet’s terrain and find a suitable landing site for a future Viking Landing 2 mission. Investigators studying the photographs found a picture of Mars’ Cydonia region that seemed to show a milewide hill shaped like a human face. NASA claimed it was just a trick of the light, and released the image, naming it the ‘Mars Face’. However, many enthusiasts believed that close scrutiny of the photographs proved that some formations were artificial, rather than naturally created. Some people stated that the face was the design of an intelligent life form, and some believed that triangular-shaped hills near the face were actually pyramids.

In 1998 and 2001 the Mars Global Surveyor took more photographs of the Cydonia region. These pictures showed the ‘Mars Face’ and other geographical objects as being much more innocent. However, most astonishingly, ‘Mars Face’ enthusiasts claimed these new pictures depicted a whole city frozen underneath a giant glacier in the region. NASA has promised to continue mapping the area until the question is answered and former NASA administrator, Dan Goldin, vowed that the Cydonia region of Mars will be studied to everybody’s satisfaction. Other developments in the quest to find life on Mars have also thrown up some fascinating results. A meteorite from Mars was found in Antarctica in 1984 and the NASA scientists who studied it found it contained evidence that bacterial life may actually exist, or have existed, on the planet. The space rock contained hydrocarbons, which are the natural waste products of dead micro-organisms, mineral structures consistent with bacterial activity and tiny globules of carbonate, which may be microfossils. In NASA’s opinion, these features found together strongly point to possible micro-organism activity. Another recent discovery was published when data found by the Pathfinder mission to Mars suggested there might be chlorophyll in its soil. Pathfinder touched down in the Ares Vallis region of the planet in July 1997, and took many pictures and readings from the area in which it landed. Some of the pictures it took revealed that two areas close to the landing site may have contained chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is a substance used by plants and other organisms to extract energy from sunlight. It is an important component of life on our planet, a very stark indicator that there may be life on another planet too.

The most important ingredient for life is water. It had generally been assumed that there was little easily available water on the surface of Mars, and most of that was frozen solid. However, recent studies have suggested that the surface is actually just a covering over a permafrost layer. NASA and Russian scientists have looked at the examples of life found in permafrost regions of Earth, and believe similar organisms may lurk somewhere on Mars. Other experts who have studied the surface of the planet have noted how similar it is to former, now driedup, river, lake and ocean areas on Earth. It all suggests that water was in abundance atsome time on Mars.

American President George Bush certainly seems to share in this opinion, and his budget announcements have all favoured putting some money into space research, particularly on Mars. One statement said that ‘habitable worlds’ may be more prevalent than scientists once thought. He vowed to put $3 billion into Project Prometheus, a plan to find out more about our solar system. This money should prove to be highly beneficial for the Mars projects, for, as each new study seems to throw up more potential questions, it may well take nothing less than a manned mission to Mars to finally put the mystery to rest.

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