Life on Mars

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Past and present life on Mars?

This is a transcript of QuickTime movie (7.3 MB) recorded in the Pilbara in 2005. Dr Jack Farmer of Arizona State University talks about the chances of finding extant and/or extinct life on Mars.


“Mars today – I think the idea of extant life on Mars today - is a bit of an open question. I think if we have living organisms there they are going to be in the deep subsurface because that’s where the habitable environments are.

“Unfortunately that could mean deep drilling - drilling to multiple kilometers and I don’t think we have the technology to do that now and [it] may be a long time before we do. In fact that could be a major driver in sending humans to Mars – the fact that humans could man drill rigs and send drills down to two kilometers and retrieve samples.

“So extant life – probably have to deep drill. There may be a few points where that deep hydrosphere has come to the surface by different processes, say [by]magmatic intrusion [causing]hydrothermal circulation. But by and large if you look at it realistically I think we’re looking at deep drilling and it could be a long time before we are able to [do that].

“We know Mars has a history and we know there are lots of layered rocks there spread over the whole planet - what we really need to know is things about composition and we’re trying to get that from orbit now. We have another mission coming, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, that’ll give us even more information about surface composition.

“When we finally figure out the right places to go I think we’re going to have rocks there that will be very interesting – as interesting as the Dresser Formation or any other of these places we’ve been looking at here.

“Then we’ll be able to begin teasing out the evidence of a fossil record, and my expectation is that information is probably going to come long before we’re able to get evidence of extant life in deep subsurface environments.

“Sort of in a nutshell: Extant life – a challenge, you have to deep drill, and may not be able to do that until humans explore Mars. Extinct life – a fossil record - probably do that quite quickly if we go to the right places. That is what we’re trying to do right now, is to discover the places to go – send our robots there, our human proxies, and then I think we might actually be able to get an answer.”

Glossary words:

Extant life: Alive today

Hydrosphere: All of the water on a planet

Magmatic intrusion: Molten rock forcing its way up




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