It's Alive: the race towards discovering Life on Mars

What do you know about space, specifically about Mars?

You may know that the relative distance between Earth and Mars is 54.6 million kilometres. You may also know that it was explored in the mid-60s and up to this very day, there continues to be projects geared towards the exploration of the “Red Planet.”

Yes, Mars (also known as the Red Planet) has been in the public eye for quite some time and scientists seem to go back and forth between news of discovery and absence; yet the planet remains captivating to scientific and pedestrian audiences alike. So really, what do you know about Mars?

In 1965, a NASA probe called the Mariner 4 was sent to orbit on Mars in the search of humanoid life that would parallel the “intelligent-life" found on planet Earth. It was to the disappointment of scientists however, that the planet housed no such life-forms and its dusty terrain was more likely to house simplistic organisms before complex, and so, the focus for NASA scientists and for the Mariner 4 became the exploration of the red soil and the hopeful discovery of any simple-celled organism.

Another NASA project was launched in ’76 called the Viking which featured the “first Mars landers.” The project too failed to showcase intelligent-life and was criticized for its inconsistent photographic feedback in which one of the two landers alerted signs of living matter within the soil, whereas the other signaled only “non-living agents.”

In 2004, NASA launched a twin-Rover expedition in which two land rovers Spirit and Opportunity were sent to Mars in the hopes of discovering life. While the Rovers did not send word of life, they proved to be key research tools in the quest for indications that life had once existed on Mars. Opportunity found “a particular rock pattern” that hinted at the properties of flowing water once upon a time in the planet’s history, and the search for life on Mars began anew!

Two years later, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was launched, and found additional evidence to support the earlier ’04 discovery that Mars was once a wet planet like Earth. In response to the ’04 and ’06 discoveries of the past existence of water on Mars, NASA launched two more expeditions in 2008 and 2012. In 2014 the Rover Curiosity was launched on Mars and earlier this January, scientists have claimed that the Rover, which was not even created for the purpose of discovering life but for the detection of methane gas, has provided the astrological world with images of “structures shaped by microbes” in ancient sedimentary rock which mirrors those found on our planet.

The discovery comes as huge delight to scientists as it propels the debate of life on Mars towards the affirmative. These microbes in question, when on Earth, are referred to as MISS (microbially-induced sedimentary structures) and have been dated on Earth as far back as 3.48 billion years. The MISS discovered on Mars are being examined in laboratories currently, but already there is talk that the structures could not exceed 3.7 billion years.

This large gap between Earth’s MISS and Mars’ MISS could reveal further information about Mars’ past life. Planetary scientist for NASA, Chris McKay, was quoted stating, “A sample return mission would be the gold standard. But that’s just unlikely to happen anytime soon.”

With all this speculation and chain of discoveries, could life on Mars be coming closer to a proven reality? What would be the impact of this discovery on our society as we know it?

For starters, there would be evidence to suggest that we are not alone in this universe and that ancestors of a different breed existed, survived, and died, long before the creation of humanity even came to be. This all brings a new terror and excitement to fantastical theories of “aliens” and “Martians” and who knows - maybe in a few years, or maybe after some decades, that age old question will be answered and Eathlings will finally have closure on the status of our dear Red Planet and its history.