Now that the U.S. space agency NASA has taken its plutonium-powered Mars rover Curiosity for a 23-foot (7-meter) test drive on the Martian surface, it can soon begin looking for evidence that life might have once existed on the Red Planet.
“This isn’t a Steven Spielberg movie,” said Tim Slater, a science professor and astronomy expert at the University of Wyoming.
Slater said whatever NASA may find certainly will not look like the images of UFOs seen in science fiction films.
“People may expect it to be life in the way that we typically think about it, but most likely if we find anything at all, it will be bacteria.”
“What we are looking for are the ingredients of life,” said John Grotzinger a project scientist with NASA.
The $2.5-billion rover does not have the equipment to detect living or fossil microorganisms, so during its planned two-year mission, it will look for geological evidence and chemical compounds that could suggest life once existed on Mars.
This is a far cry from the extraterrestrials commonly depicted in feature films and the excitement and philosophical debates will be limited to a small segment of the population, said Slater.
“Scientists will be very excited about this, but I expect most people won’t find that to be very interesting.”
U.S. President Barack Obama might beg to differ, he has said signs of life on Mars would become one of the most important human discoveries of all time.
“I've got a lot of other things on my plate, but I suspect that will go to the top of the list. Even if they’re just microbes, it will be pretty exciting,” Obama told scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory during a phone call last week.
Rocket scientist Robert Zurbin, president of the Mars Society, an organization that supports the exploration and colonization of Mars, strongly believes the Curiosity mission is just what the world needs to open its eyes to bigger ideas. “Are we just this marginal phenomenon living in one planet in one corner of one galaxy or are we an example of something rising everywhere,” said Zurbin.
“Knowing that we aren’t alone in the universe certainly has the potential to excite and inspire humanities.”
In 1996, NASA scientists announced that a meteorite found on Earth contained evidence of microscopic life long ago on Mars and it created a media frenzy making headlines around the world.
It also prompted U.S. President Bill Clinton to say the discovery could be “one of the most stunning insights into our universe that science has ever uncovered.”
A CNN report at the time said “the world sat up and took notice,” but so did science skeptics, who questioned the findings that life once existed on Mars.
And the debate about possible life on Mars goes beyond the scientific community, as religion experts try to make sense about what the discovery of Martian life might mean to the creationism versus evolution argument.
“Science and religion are not mutually exclusive,” said Paul Taylor, a science educator and the Director of Ministry Development for Creation Today, a Christian ministry that defends what it calls the literal interpretation of creation.
“All scientific evidence is interpreted by a person’s world view,” said Taylor. “If life is found on Mars, I don’t have any particular problem with that, however, one shouldn’t assume that life is there due to evolution.”
“When Christ died on the cross, he only died once, and he did it for human beings,” said Dr. Joseph Kezele, President of the Arizona Origin Science Association, an organization that promotes creationism.
“He’s the only begotten son of God of the Universe. If there is life in other places, that would imply he’d have to have died another time as well,” added Kezele.
“Most Christian theologians believe that God’s creations are amazing things and there is no problem with finding life anywhere else in the Universe and it’s no threat to Christianity,” said Professor Slater.
Up next for Curiosity, a trip to a spot known as Glenelg, about a quarter-mile (400 meters) away from the landing site, where three types of geological formations come together. That month-long journey could start in about a week.
And whatever Curiosity discovers on Mars during its mission, one day we might very well find life on the Red Planet, but it could come from Earth.
The White House says one of the goals for Curiosity is to pave the way for future missions, including a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s.