Chris Carberry: In 500 years, everybody will remember who discovered life on another planet.

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(Photo: NASA via AFP/Getty Images)

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • There has been speculation that the Curiosity rover may have discovered evidence of life on Mars.
  • Martian notoriety isn’t a new development.
  • But this celebrity status really boils down to one question: Has life ever existed on Mars?

5:42PM EST November 25. 2012 - Mars has attracted a lot of attention lately. Roversorbiters, and othermechanical Mars explorers have captivated the world. In recent days, there has been a flurry of speculation that the Curiosity rover on Mars may have discovered evidence that indicates that life may have (or still may) exist on Mars. Rumors are currently swirling after John Grotzinger, project scientist for the Curiosity rover, stated that NASA could soon announce that Curiosity has made a discovery that is “earthshaking … one for the history books,” prompting speculation that the rover has discovered organic material, which could indicate life on Mars.

Some are already casting doubts. Earlier in the mission, there had been buzz that the rover confirmed the existence of methane (a possible life indicator) on the Martian surface. The readings from Curiosityproved to be negative, but it has intensified a growing narrative about the prospect of life on other planets and what Curiosity might find over the upcoming months.

Martian notoriety isn’t a new development. We have been fascinated by Mars for a long time, but this neighboring planet has gone through several makeovers in our imaginations. Back in the late 19th century, Percival Lowell speculated about life on Mars, hypothesizing that it had an ancient civilization of intelligent beings. Inspired by this theme, H.G. Wells penned The War of the Worlds in which intelligent inhabitants from Mars invaded Earth only to be defeated by the common cold. Four decades later, Orson Welles terrified listeners around the United States with his radio performance of the H.G. Wells classic. This theme of Martian life continued throughout the 1950s, fueling both scientific and science fiction speculation and often serving as a conduit to express our earthly fears about nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Mars was the biggest celebrity planet.

The wilderness years

Then everything changed. NASA sent a series of orbiters and landers in the 1960s and 1970s. Mars appeared to be completely barren and dead. No canals, no water — no life. Mars was dead not only from a scientific point of view, but also dead in our popular imagination. Movies depicting belligerent aliens continued to be made, but few listed their home address as the fourth planet from our sun.

However, rumors of Mars’ death turned out to be greatly exaggerated. Starting in the 1990s, a new generation of more capable orbiters and landers began to visit Mars and our whole perception of the Red Planet once again changed. With vastly improved instruments and capabilities, we learned that there were ancient riverbeds on Mars and that it once had bodies of saltwater. We confirmed that there remains a significant amount of water ice on Mars, and we saw compelling evidence of outflows of liquid waterfrom cliff sides on Mars — indicating the probability of subsurface liquid water. On top of that, in the 1990s, a group of scientists announced that they had found evidence of what might be a microbial fossil in a Martian meteorite that had fallen to Earth in Antarctica.

Career rebirth

Mars had become a celebrity again. It fascinates the general public. Not only is Mars far more scientifically interesting than we believed in the 1970s, but the prospect of past or present life on that planet has once again become a possibility. This fact hasn’t been lost on Hollywood. Mars became a cinematic destination again in the 1990s and 2000s with films such as Mission to Mars, Red Planet and John Carter.

But this celebrity status really boils down to one question: Has life ever existed on Mars? We may now be very close to answering that question. If we are able to confirm that life currently exists on Mars (even in microbial form), it will be one of the most significant discoveries in history, transforming our understanding of the nature of life in the universe. If there is life on Mars, we know that it is not an intelligent civilization as Percival Lowell and H.G. Wells speculated. Regardless of that fact, Mars is alive again in our imaginations — and possibly alive again for real.

In 500 years, nobody will remember what sports team wins the championship or what tax rates were being paid by Americans, but they will remember what country discovered life on another planet … and what country first put people on another planet.

Chris Carberry is executive director of Explore Mars Inc.


The above article was published in USA Today on Monday 25 November 2012.

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