What Will Happen If We Find Life on Mars?

I have always taken an interest in outer space, so I found the recent landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars quite exciting. On February 18th, 2021, the SUV-sized rover successfully landed on the red planet at 3:55 pm. Due to several mechanical factors, this landing was risky; NASA and millions of others sat on edge waiting to see if this investment would have any return after a seven-month journey to Mars (not to mention eleven years spent designing and building the rover). Since that day, Perseverance has provided a high-quality panorama picture of the Martian landscape and the first recordings of sounds from the planet. The most captivating aspect of the whole endeavor, however, is its mission: the search for life, present or past. After all, the rover landed near what NASA and others speculate may have been a river delta at some point in the planet’s history. With these possibilities in mind, what kind of impact would the discovery of evidence of extraterrestrial life on Mars have? 

This discovery would likely affect society in more ways than I can imagine, so I do not claim to have a comprehensive vision of its entire impact and will only speculate about some effects. First of all, science textbooks would need to be updated immediately. Scientists and others would rapidly begin to develop new technologies to pursue further research into the discovery. A new generation of children would never know the exceptionalism of assuming Earth to be the only planet inhabited by life. For those that have lived with this assumption, the impact would be greatest. People who truly believe that life on Earth indicates exceptionalism would have the foundation of some of their most fundamental beliefs shaken, especially with regard to spiritual beliefs. 

Galaxy of Stars behind mountains Photo by Denis Degioanni from Unsplash

More than anything, we would feel small. It may not have a significant impact on our psyches day-to-day, but this addition to the ever-growing list of space discoveries would almost certainly give us new perspective, and I do not mean this in a negative way. It’s one thing to consider how small we are compared to the Sun, or the Milky Way galaxy, or a supermassive black hole. However, life on Mars would make us understand our smallness in an entirely new way distinct from physical size. We would have the overwhelming sense of smallness of human intellect. I expect a series of key questions would arise in most minds. We did not possess the brain capacity to make this discovery until now, so what do we not have the intellectual ability to discover at the moment? What will we never have the ability to discover? Many of us already think about these questions from time to time, but the discovery of life on Mars would bring these thoughts to the forefront and encourage special attention in the context of each academic discipline. Meanwhile, existentialism would run high as we might consider whether such an event should encourage the redefinition of existence. 

After the wave of shock settled, we would want to examine the history of life on Mars as much as possible. Part of Mars’ uninhabitable condition is its thin atmosphere. With the state of our own atmosphere currently at risk due to climate change, this discovery would provide a prime opportunity to investigate how exactly lack of atmosphere contributes to the adaptability and/or demise of life. I predict that the results would encourage more environmental consciousness and serious thought about adapting to live in what our world may become. 

Perseverance may or may not find life on Mars, but its name reflects the attitude of NASA and others toward the mission. One could even argue that it says something about human nature. Our society does not only persevere in Space; we will persevere in the face of threats to our survival on Earth as well. Additionally, perseverance does not guarantee that we will succeed; it only means that we will not stop trying, and that is an admirable quality in the human race. I look forward to the results, no matter what they may be.

satellite image of a large hurricane Photo by Pixabay from Pexels