Modern science is capable of sending spaceships to the most remote corners of the Solar System, from whence it can show us our place in the universe: a small planet orbiting a common star in one of the billions of galaxies that make up the universe. From here, humans dream of finding stellar neighbors. We want to know that we are not alone in the infinite expanse of the cosmos, which is home to thousands of worlds that could host life comparable to or impossibly distant from ours. Perhaps the answer is closer to what we expect, as according to experts, Mars could harbor life.
The science and other stuff to know
The detection of organic molecules in an extraterrestrial celestial body could indicate that there is a presence of life forms there. However, it is not conclusive evidence since these compounds can be produced by non-biological means, such as physicochemical and geological processes.
In 2013 two separate projects, NASA’s Curiosity rover and ESA’s Mars Express orbiter detected a burst of methane in the Gale crater on Mars. Then, in 2021, NASA’s Perseverance rover analyzed samples of igneous volcanic rocks in the Jezero crater, an ancient river delta on the Red Planet, and found organic molecules of possible geological origin.
Now, a study carried out by the California Institute of Technology (CALTECH) has just been published in the journal Science, and maintains that the evidence for the presence of organic matter in Jezero is compelling. The Perseverance rover took rock samples from what was once the bottom of the delta and analyzed them with its instruments. It found that rock porosities carved by water between 3.8 and 2.7 billion years ago are a plausible habitat for harboring microscopic life given the high presence of minerals, carbonates, and salts.
The authors argue in their paper that “Taken together, the data show that the drilled samples collected by Perseverance from the floor of Jezero Crater are likely to contain evidence of carbonation and formation of sulfates and perchlorates.” In other words, that Mars could have harbored microscopic life attached to underwater rocks billions of years ago.
Understanding the processes that gave rise to the organic compounds that we observe on Mars will allow us to better understand organic chemistry and the potential for life to develop in environments different from those we know.
The search for intelligent life currently led by the SETI Institute aims to answer the question that all human beings have ever asked about the nature of life. Finding conclusive evidence of past or present life on Mars would revolutionize, in addition to modern science, our outlook on the world, our values, and even our identity. It could even be that life on Earth was seeded by space debris that transported life forms from Mars to our planet.
For now, it is necessary to be patient and wait for a return mission to bring the samples collected by the rovers home to be studied in depth using sophisticated instruments and techniques that are currently only available in a terrestrial laboratory. As a result, we will be able to evaluate whether the composition of these molecules is related to biological activity on Mars.