Known Johnson

August 4, 2008

Life on Mars?

Filed under: General — Tom @ 1:54 pm

No. But the way things have been going the past few days in the news, you might be thinking that an announcement saying so was imminent. Let me be among the many realists to ground you: no.

People are making a big deal of this supposed contact between a NASA rep and the White House about something important found in the Phoenix lander’s work on Mars as meaning that it found life. Again: no. It’s not even built to find life. It’s built to find evidence of water and the support for life, but not life itself. Reportedly, the microscope can’t even resolve images small enough to see microscopic life living in the ice or soil it scoops up. It’s other instruments are designed to look for chemicals. And that’s about it.

As for the contact between NASA and the White House, I can believe it. Imagine NASA finding something as important as the possibility of support for life on Mars. That’s a pretty massive change in how we’ve viewed our solar system. Until now, Earth had been the sole point in it that could support life, but suddenly Mars, cold and dead as it is now, could possibly support life under the right circumstances. And maybe it had in the past – we just don’t know at this point. But imagine not informing the head of the country about an announcement like that and then watching as people freak out. It seems remote that something ridiculous could happen, but you never know – when religious views are challenged, as a finding like this could threaten some people’s view of life, they get very defensive (and offensive, sometimes.)

The unfortunate thing is that while the Phoenix team continues to examine the tests from Mars before making an announcement, there will obviously be a contingent who assumes the paranoid worst – that the contact between the two government agencies has resulted in the “real” truth being silenced (that we found actual life) in favor of something more palatable (something more benign, like the aforementioned “support for life.”) There’s nothing that can be done about freaks like this – you cannot provide any kind of proof to people like this that scientists don’t operate this way. It’s best to just let them freak out in their own little whirlwind of paranoia and enjoy it from a distance.

Ultimately, this doesn’t prove anything – yet. We haven’t found life. What I hope is that it hastens a desire to get humans to Mars with lots of equipment to do some serious investigating in real-time, and to bring home a huge amount of samples to study here. Sending landers and rovers is a great way to get an idea of what’s there, but there’s only so much that can be learned until you put people, with tools in their hands, on the surface, and let them go to work. Skip the moon, NASA, and head straight to Mars.



  1. Sitting back and waiting for the “why spend so much money on space exploration when there are so many starving people here” crowd to show up.

    I would like to see humanity evolve into something capable of taking the long view seriously.

    Comment by Yogi — August 4, 2008 @ 2:00 pm | Reply

  2. I’d like to point anyone who doubts the benefits of space exploration to this very interesting feature that NASA put together. That should shut anyone up about how the space program has benefited all of us over the past 50 years.

    As Buzz Aldrin put it, “We can continue to try and clean up the gutters all over the world and spend all of our resources looking at just the dirty spots and trying to make them clean. Or we can lift our eyes up and look into the skies and move forward in an evolutionary way.” In other words, we are NEVER going to take care of all of humanities needs if all we ever do is focus on that. By stretching the boundaries of what we know we can do, we better ourselves and often provide better things for those suffering, too. It all comes back around – advances in science rarely stay in science.

    One other thing those who want to get rid of NASA always forget: the money from NASA’s budget would not go into help for the homeless or treatments for disease, etc. It would go to the military and the government itself. A tiny, tiny percentage might filter into humanitarian efforts, but very little would go toward things you approve of. People really get a tremendous “bang for the buck” when it comes to ROI with NASA – we actually get something out of it, whereas most government agencies are just bottomless pits.

    Comment by Tom — August 4, 2008 @ 2:30 pm | Reply

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