NASA’s Curiosity Rover found possible signs of life on the red planet this week, in findings published Saturday in The New York Times. However, it’s far too early to conclude that life exists, or ever did exist, on Mars.
On Wednesday, the spacecraft, which has already exceeded its planned mission’s life by several years, took measurements of the martian atmosphere that startled researchers back on Earth. Specifically, the craft picked up the presence of methane in the planet’s atmosphere. On Earth, methane is produced primarily by living things.
Dr. Michael Mumma, a senior scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, says that he and his team are cautiously optimistic that the findings may point toward life on Mars.
“We are 99 percent confident. It surprised all of us, actually. We really are still scrambling to understand what it means,” he said.
Similarly, another mission scientist, Ashwin R. Vasavada, said that the “surprising result” got mission controllers scrambling to order the craft to perform more tests. He says that his team has “re-organized the weekend” to perform follow-up tests, with results expected on Monday.
Ever since spacecraft started exploring the red planet, tantalizing signs of life, though few and far between, have been coming back to researchers here on Earth.
A new image from NASA's Curiosity Rover shows a strange glowing light above the Red Planet's surface. https://t.co/7bTmKsmn8b
— USA TODAY Money (@USATODAYmoney) June 20, 2019
In 2004, for example, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Mars Express orbiter appeared to detect trace amounts of methane in the martian atmosphere, giving scientists hope that evidence of life, past or present, may be evident on Mars.
However, those findings were quickly cast into doubt, as Astronomy reports, because some researchers suspected the craft’s equipment might not have been sensitive enough to pick up accurate measurements of methane. Similarly, hopes of methane of Mars were dashed in 2018 when another European craft, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), found precisely zero evidence of methane in the martian atmosphere.
If life does exist in Mars, it’s almost certainly primitive organisms, such as fungi. The martian atmosphere is 1 percent as thick as the Earth’s, and is composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide. Similarly, the thin atmosphere doesn’t protect against harmful radiation from the sun, and temperatures on the surface of planet are too cold for complex organisms to survive or thrive. Any life that exists on the planet will likely be found underneath the ground.
On the subject of potential martian fungi, in March The Inquisitr reported that a team of scientists had observed photos from the red planet and concluded that mushrooms were growing on the surface. However, those findings were not taken seriously by the larger scientific community.