Mars, Water, and Life

“Mars tugs at the human imagination like no other planet. With a force mightier than gravity, it attracts the eye to the shimmering red presence in the clear night sky.”
John Noble Wilford

It seems like everything associated with space has a Mars focus.  NASA’s plan to return to the moon has a Mars association. Scientists are receiving a nearly continuous string of data about Mars from orbiters, landers, and rovers. NASA is planning on sending astronauts to Mars for research, and SpaceX is planning to colonize the red planet.

When we think of Mars, we think of a dry radiation banked world.

This March 27, 2015, view from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows a site with a network of prominent mineral veins below a cap rock ridge on lower Mount Sharp. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/mars/images/index.html
This March 27, 2015, view from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover shows a site with a network of prominent mineral veins below a cap rock ridge on lower Mount Sharp. https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/mars/images/index.html

However, we know that Mars once looked very different. Exploration has shown that Mars was warmer with a thicker atmosphere and flowing water.  Martian rovers discovered much of this evidence.  Opportunity found hematite a mineral of iron that forms in water.  Opportunity also discovered gypsum, a calcium sulfate mineral usually created by the evaporation of water.  Opportunity also found evidence of clay minerals that form in water.

The rover Spirit found environments that suggest active hot springs and warm neutral (pH) water, environments that are highly conducive to life as we know it. The existence of these features and minerals tells us that water once flowed freely above and below the Martian surface.  (https://mars.nasa.gov/mer/mission/science/results/)

The scientific evidence shows that liquid water once flowed on the surface of Mars.  How does this tell us that the plant was warmer with a thicker atmosphere? Water can exist in three phases solid, liquid, and gas. Two physical properties affect the phases of water, temperature, and pressure.  We know that below specific pressures (about ten mbar), water can only exist as a solid and gas.

Additionally, above a specific pressure (about 100 kbar), water can only exist as a solid. Temperature has similar effects on water. Scientists mapped out the results of pressure and temperature water, producing a triple point diagram.

The triple point diagram tells us for there to have been flowing water on Mars. The plant had to be warmer with a higher pressure.  Higher pressure means a thicker atmosphere since the thickness of the atmosphere determines atmospheric pressure.  Therefore Mars was once a wet, warmer world with a thicker atmosphere.

All this scientific evidence means is that Mars once had all the ingredients necessary for life liquid water and energy either from the sun or from hot springs.  Hot springs are a great source of energy for life.  If you have ever been to an area rich geothermal activity, you have likely seen hot springs with multicolored patterns. Like the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone.

This picture shows the different colors of the Grand Prismatic Spring. A corner of Grand Prismatic Spring-1.jpg By Tigerzeng on 19 August 2017, 18:07:47. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
This picture shows the different colors of the Grand Prismatic Spring. A corner of Grand Prismatic Spring-1.jpg By Tigerzeng on 19 August 2017, 18:07:47. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Microorganisms produce the colors. (The Science Behind Yellowstone’s Rainbow Hot Spring) Everyplace on earth where we have water and energy, we have found life. Therefore, we know that Mars once had all the ingredients to support life as we know it.  Additionally, we know that there are life forms like Tardigrades, also known as water bears, that can survive in extremely harsh environments.

Scanning electron micrograph of an adult tardigrade (water bear). By the Goldstein lab – tardigrades This image, which was originally posted to Flickr, was uploaded to Commons using Flickr upload bot on 28 September 2009, 13:40 by Tryphon. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
Scanning electron micrograph of an adult tardigrade (water bear). By the Goldstein lab – tardigrades This image, which was originally posted to Flickr, was uploaded to Commons using Flickr upload bot on 28 September 2009, 13:40 by Tryphon. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

In 2007, scientists exposed Tardigrades to the vacuum and radiation of space.  When the tardigrades returned to earth, many of them revived and reproduced. 

All of this might lead you to ask why NASA hasn’t looked directly for life on Mars.  NASA has looked for life on Mars. NASA’s first successful Martin landers Viking 1 and Viking 2 carried experiments to look for life on Mars.  These experiments incubate samples of Martian soil with organic nutrients and water.  The experiment then examined the containers holding the soil to see if they produced gas consist with life (Viking lander biological experiments).

At first, scientists thought they had uncovered proof of life on Mars. However, there were inconsistencies between different experiments. The scientific consensus was that the observations were the result of naturally occurring chemicals in the soil. However, Gilbert V. Levin principal scientist on the Viking lander Labeled Release experiment thinks they did find life.  In the Scientific America article I’m Convinced We Found Evidence of Life on Mars in the 1970s, he lays out the argument.

Whether or not NASA found life what is true as Dr. Levin said: “Inexplicably, over the 43 years since Viking, none of NASA’s subsequent Mars landers has carried a life-detection instrument to follow up on these exciting results.” that NASA has not sent any other direct life sensing experiments to Mars. Now I will freely admit I have a hard time understanding how life could exist on the Martian surface.  The environment on Mars is hostile to life in all ways.  However, even just a little way below the surface that starts to change.  After all, dirt is good at blocking radiation.

In the article Life on Mars? It’s pointed out that some scientists think Mars might still harbor life.  “At a February conference in the Netherlands, an audience of Mars experts was surveyed about Martian life. Some 75 percent of the scientists said they thought life once existed there, and of them, 25 percent think that Mars harbors life today.”

You might ask the question, “If there is or was life on Mars, let’s get there as fast as we can so we can study it.”  If there is still life on Mars, what we could learn from it is unknowable.  Studying the life on Mars might change our understanding of biology and medicine in ways we can’t imagine.

So, we want to get to Mars.  There is a distinctive difference between dedicated research and colonization.  Colonization will have a direct impact on the Martian environment.  We will have to create large areas for food productions and the mining of resources.  While much of the waste products produced will likely be recycled, some of it will get into the environment. Because of the waste products and modifications of the environment, the colony will disrupt possible Martian life, potentially leading to the loss of valuable information.  Lastly, it will be imposable to keep a living growing colony biologically sealed from Mars-based microorganisms.  Which could prove dangerous?

Long before we ever consider colonizing Mars, we need to know whether life existed or still exists on Mars. If life exists on Mars, we need to conduct research using carefully designed research outposts that protect both the astronauts and the Martian life.  We need to discuss and decide what conditions need to meet before colonization can happen. If we are not careful when it comes to Mars, we will end up doing things before we have decided if we should.

Lastly, why aren’t teams of students and professors proposing life find experiments to NASA? If enough teams think about and design experiments, we might come up with something that works.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

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