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Life on Mars


If we find Martian life, what do we do about it?

On organic life

Say that Curiosity does manage to find Martian organic molecules, the building blocks of life, that means that the kind of raw materials, the stuff you need to build cells out of, were on Mars but it doesn’t definitely mean there were Martian bugs there, it’s not a sign of life itself, it’s kind of a pre-requisite .

So let’s say that Curiosity is successful and it finds organic molecules in these rocks it’s looking for, so that there’s the basic building blocks for life, the pre-requisite for biology, and not necessarily life itself, and so the next step after that, and maybe something that ExoMars – this European  space agency rover – will be able to tell us about is finding unambiguous, incontrovertible evidence for Martian biology, for finding the long dead remains or long extinct remains of Martian microbal life, because by finding that out, we know that we’re not alone.  Even if Martian life is long since dead, we know that the Earth wasn’t unique, and if we find life on Mars it really starts remaking up the possibilities that it’s all the way out there, biology is commonplace in our galaxy and that there’s plenty of life on these wet rocks orbiting other stars.

On replicating Martian life

I suppose the next important thing to think of is that if we find Martian life, what do we do about it?  Do we try to bring that life back to the Earth? I mean, we’d want to be very, very careful that that life doesn’t escape and potentially pollute the terrestrial biosphere, we’d want to make sure it doesn’t…that those kind of escapees don’t come out.  But I think it’s something we’d definitely want to be doing because rather than trying to understand about Martian life on Mars, we’d want to bring it back and then study it with all of the laboratories and equipment around the entire planet and then kind of look under the hood of that Martian cell, if you like, to kind of analyse it and then see how it works and then find out ways that Martian life is similar to us, if we kind of work in the same kind of way on a molecular level.  But I think even more exciting than that is finding out how that alien life is different from us, how its built in a fundamentally different way, what diversity you might find in biology to kind of do comparative biology in the way that we do international studies between different countries or sociological studies between different cultures on Earth, imagine doing that with an entire new life form and comparing and contrasting against ourselves.

On travelling to Mars

This radiation that we’ve been talking about, both travelling from Earth to Mars, but also walking around on the surface of the red planet, is one of the biggest concerns for a human mission to Mars: we don’t want to unnecessarily expose them to danger.  We’re trying to understand what kind of dose levels you might experience and how best to shield and protect our astronauts on the way there. 

But aside from the radiation, there’s going to be a big problem of the micro gravity and although it looks like fun kind of floating around in the micro gravity of space, it does a lot of damage to your body: skeletons are degrading and weakening, your muscles are getting very weak and particularly your heart, and we want to be able to ensure that when astronauts arrive on Mars and when they come back to Earth, you know, that they’ll be able to walk when they get there and they won’t be kind of knocked out by the journey and they won’t be able to do anything useful.  So there’s a lot of science research going into trying answer these problems.

I think it’s fair to say that we’ve got a good understanding of the technology needed to send a human mission to Mars, we’ve got the basics there.  There’s some unknowns, we want to be able to better understand the radiation and how to protect against it and maybe develop better strategy and minimise the problem of micro gravity.  But, if we had the will, we could go today and we could probably pull off a successful mission if we put all the kind of checks and balances in place and we were very, very careful about it.  I suspect though we won’t be launching for another decade or so because its going to be very, very expensive, a big international effort to draw together all of the space faring nations on the Earth and have kind of a world mission, a national mission.  This would be a great effort for pulling people together, it’s going to take a while to have all those discussions and get people reading from the same page, I suspect.

There’s one proposal for a mission to Mars to make it a one way mission: a one way journey to send our people from the Earth to Mars and not expect to bring them back.  And, actually, there’s quite a lot of good sense behind this, and you wouldn’t be sending people on a suicide mission, they would go and expect to live out their natural lives on Mars and just happen to die on another world. I mean, we all need to die at some point, and imagine lying on your deathbed and kind of looking over at a Martian sunset rather than being back on Earth.

And going on a one way mission to Mars is much easier, twice as easy as going there and coming back.  So maybe the decision to explore Mars would be to send some people with enough stuff to keep them alive and grow their own food and regenerate their own oxygen and then a few years later send more people, and then some more people to kind of build up a Mars colony and be self sufficient and living off the land in the same way we sent out sailing ships from Europe, crossed the Atlantic and colonised America, and those pioneers never expected to come back to Europe afterwards. And so maybe we’ll colonise the planets using that same philosophy.