Exploring the Pilbara
If we are to successfully search for past or present life on Mars - or indeed any other planet or moon in our solar system – the journey of exploration begins on our own planet. By doing this, our chances of success elsewhere greatly increase.
As old as our planet and the solar system are – 4.6 billion years – they are not as old as the universe. Astronomers estimate the age of the universe at 13.7 billion years. If it was not as old, we might not be here, because in the beginning there was hydrogen, and then the next lightest element, helium. The birth of new stars, and death of some in explosive, incredibly hot supernovae forged the heavier elements in increasing concentration, such as carbon, nitrogen and iron – the stuff of planets, and in our case, life. Some scientists think it take a lot to cook up intelligence, and the presence of our very large single moon may make the circumstances for intelligence elsewhere in the universe very rare - perhaps the only example. We simply don’t know.
We don’t know exactly how life arose from seemingly lifeless chemicals – whether there a rules like those of chemistry and physics that predict the recipe for life and that it is factored in the universe. That ‘don’t know’ aspect characterises why scientists work in sometimes unbelievable conditions to carry out the one aim of their trade – to increase knowledge of the natural world. Sometimes it comes in small, frustratingly slow steps, and sometimes all at once. But being there in those first few seconds of discovery is a thrill beyond compare. Even if science isn’t your thing – we hope the voyage of discovery on this virtual field trip will provide a sense of the true nature of science.
So, we invite you to step out onto a landscape with a group of some 30 scientists to one of the most ancient vistas on Earth – the Pilbara area of Western Australia. It is here many scientists believe the presence of our earliest ancestors is etched into rocks nearly 3.5 billion years old as stromatolites. But science isn’t happy without a total answer, and while the shapes of the purported fossils mimic exactly those known to be our ancestors in 2.8 billion year old rocks, these ones are so old, an aspect known as ‘biomarkers’ – organic stuff – are currently beyond detection of the best scientific tools. Yet, understanding whether they are the leftovers of life on Early Earth is key to understanding any evidence we may have of past life on Mars. The mysteries are the stuff of curiosity of the kind that drives science.
You can take this journey through a set of hi-tech NASA tools.