Life on Mars — a Prospect for the Future?

By:  James Heiser
11/30/2012
       
Life on Mars — a Prospect for the Future?

For all of the scientific and popular interest in past or present life on Mars, what can awaken the greatest public reaction is the possibility of future, human life on Mars. With both the old and new media spotlight turned once more toward Mars, Elon Musk, the entrepreneur who created the space transport company SpaceX, has given hints regarding his plans for a future human settlement on Mars.

As the Curiosity rover continues its travels across the Martian surface, the Red Planet is back in the news, with information linking that world’s distant past to a possible future. Whatever secrets may be uncovered in the next several years by the science teams which direct the work of the current rover, Mars continues to draw human interest and imagination in a way no other object in the night sky is able to equal.

The prospect of discovering past or present life on Mars has inevitably been attached in public expectations to NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, the $2.5-billion rover which has been given the name of Curiosity, and the popular media has become accustomed to connecting a "life on Mars" angle to almost every report regarding that mission. Thus, for example, when project scientist John Grotzinger declared concerning a discovery, the details of which had not yet been disclosed, "This data is gonna be one for the history books. It's looking really good," the media began to speculate that Curiosity had discovered signs of past Martian life. But, as the Guardian (U.K.) reported, while a great many scientific experiments are being conducted by the rover, it is not primarily on the Martian surface to search for evidence of life:

By the time the story reached the pages of the U.K.'s Daily Express, it had turned into: "Nasa are set to reveal what could be the most significant scientific discovery in modern times, teasingly stating they have unearthed something on Mars 'for the history books.'"

Whatever Curiosity has found, it is not evidence for life on Mars. It can't be. Curiosity is not designed to look for life. Grotzinger has stated this himself. In a Nasa video about the mission, he says, "Curiosity is not a life detection mission. We're not actually looking for life; we don't have the ability to detect life if it was there."

Following up the internet speculation, Jeffrey Kluger of Time talked to Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory spokesperson Guy Webster and was told, "It won't be earthshaking, but it will be interesting."

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Photo of Mars

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