Recent developments on the Martian front have seen a new mission to the red planet being approved with a budget of some $438 millions dollars. The new mission comes partially thanks to discoveries made over the past two years that suggest life may have once been on the surface of Mars, and may still exist in microbial form in the recesses of the planet.
The project, dubbed MAVEN for “Mars Atmospheric and Volatile Evolution” will be spearheaded by the University of Colorado and include contributions from both Lockheed Martin and NASA itself. The program will probe the surface and atmosphere of the planet to discover whether or not the ice on its surface has the potential to turn to liquid water and how old the ice sheets are. The discovery of water on Mars in the form of ice sheets and the discovery of vast surprise amounts of water on the Moon have been major contributors to the interest scientists have in the potential for microbial life. And the more recent discovery by the Hayabusa spacecraft of mysterious particles suggesting the possibility of life certainly don’t discourage the concept as well.
What will the craft sent to Mars discover? With the recent laundry list of major discoveries NASA and other programs have collectively made in the past year, it seems microbial life on Mars’ surface could easily find itself on the list as well. And with Hayabusa’s precious cargo being scrutinized even now, the discovery of life beyond Earth may come even before 2013 when the probe is set to launch.
What would a simple life form on Mars look like? If it had existed during any of the major changes taking place across the red planet’s surface it would most certainly be what we on Earth describe as an extremophile. Extremophiles are simple organisms that work outside or on the fringe of where life would normally be considered impossible. These tiny microbes can live under extreme pressures or in a vacuum, under intense heat or in the freezing cold of the antarctic, and can find nourishment in elements once thought impossible to do so with. The existence of extremophiles has for years proven that the once thought impossible task of living on a planet such as Mars could be far easier than once thought.
So what significance would there be in discovering current or past life on Mars? Aside from the obvious understanding that our planet is not alone in the universe and more complex organisms could exist elsewhere, discovering life on another planet could provide a blueprint for creating organisms that could help in terraforming processes and allow future generations to grow crops, create large colonies of bacteria and microbes to produce oxygen and an earthlike atmosphere, and understand how life could evolve differently than it does on Earth. But more importantly they can discover the similarities to more terrestrial life forms to possibly discover if they exist on Earth.