Over the next ten years, a headline may announce that NASA has found evidence of life in space.
Would you cause these messages to run screaming into the street? A recent article in the British Sunday Telegraph suggests that Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Department, believes the public could be disintegrated by the discovery of biology beyond the borders of our own planet. But Green does not really believe that. He fears that we have not given much thought to the next steps of scientists should we suddenly deal with the reality of Martian life.
Here is the backstory: By 2020, Mars and Earth will again be relatively close together, adjacent orbits around the Sun. To exploit these random orbital circumstances, space agencies will launch a small brigade of spacecraft on the Red Planet. Unlike the robotic explorers who now romp around in the dusty landscapes of Mars, these new ships ̵
It is the imminent deployment of these new robot discoverers that prompted Green to say we could learn about life on Mars within a few years. They were able to find convincing evidence for biology. But he also said that the next steps are cloudy. Now he did not say that the news of extraterrestrial life would undoubtedly disturb the public. We know that this is not the case because we did this experiment more than two decades ago.
In 1996, the blockbuster science bulletin of the year was a claim that fossil microbes found in a meteorite were a piece of old Mars regolith or Earth. The meteorite – known as ALH 84001 – was a small Martian specimen containing seemingly shady bodies of ancient microbes.
This was a big story, but the public reaction was as calm as the dawn. People just wanted to know more. Unfortunately, the history of the Martian meteorite changed when the evidence was studied by other researchers. The argument for ancient microbes on the Red Planet was weak.
The point is that the public found this story intriguing but not alarming. It was about life on Mars, yes, but bacteria-like life – long dead.
But what if we still find life on Mars – for example, a layer of living bacteria several feet below Mars? Sterility is? Surface? What would we do? Would anyone tell Elon Musk to stop his planned excursions to Mars because the planet has a native population?
This is clearly a scenario we are not prepared for. Although the new Mars robotic researchers can only find evidence of a biota that died out billions of years ago, it is not clear if we have a science battle plan we want to do next. The admonition of Green is: Unlike the Boy Scouts we are not quite prepared.
It could of course be said that the Spanish court in 1492 was not prepared for the discovery of a new world and also improvised its reaction. But the hope is that we can do better by finding evidence of life on Mars, because we can finally see it coming.
And then there's the following: For many people, the term "Martian" is reminiscent of something intelligent, usually with a less than sympathetic attitude towards Earth citizens. For these people, the statement that "we are not prepared for the discovery of life on Mars" sounds like a worrying lack of military preparedness.
For anyone familiar with the actual conditions on Mars, this is a stupid concern. There are no civilized species on the Red Planet and no evidence that they ever existed. If Martians are sitting on Earth's little reddish buddy, you will need a 40x magnification to see them. They will not come to Earth unless we pack them up and drag them back into our rockets.
Additionally, a recent Arizona State University survey shows that most of the earth's inhabitants would welcome intelligent aliens. Apparently they find it likely that such beings would be friendly. Thanks, E.T.
Obviously, it is still uncertain what steps we should take when Martians are found. As Green said in an interview, "What we're going to do next depends on what we find first." But that much is certain: a discovery that Mars has had or would have would be of enormous importance. It would be a proof that life is a process that starts on many worlds and consequently the universe is full of biology – an idea that is now only an appealing hypothesis.
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