Life On Earth Began On Mars

Or so says one study:

Professor Steven Benner, a geochemist, has argued that the “seeds” of life probably arrived on Earth in meteorites blasted off Mars by impacts or volcanic eruptions. As evidence, he points to the oxidised mineral form of the element molybdenum, thought to be a catalyst that helped organic molecules develop into the first living structures.

“It’s only when molybdenum becomes highly oxidised that it is able to influence how early life formed,” said Benner, of the Westheimer Institute for Science and Technology in the US. “This form of molybdenum couldn’t have been available on Earth at the time life first began, because three billion years ago, the surface of the Earth had very little oxygen, but Mars did.

“It’s yet another piece of evidence which makes it more likely that life came to Earth on a Martian meteorite, rather than starting on this planet.”

All living things are made from organic matter, but simply adding energy to organic molecules will not create life. Instead, left to themselves, organic molecules become something more like tar or asphalt, said Prof Benner.

He added: “Certain elements seem able to control the propensity of organic materials to turn to tar, particularly boron and molybdenum, so we believe that minerals containing both were fundamental to life first starting.

“Analysis of a Martian meteorite recently showed that there was boron on Mars; we now believe that the oxidised form of molybdenum was there too.”

It’s a pretty interesting theory, and I’d love to see it explored further. It’s strange to think that all life on Earth might have really begun on a whole other planet (ala the concept of panspermia). 

Water on Mars?

It’s an exciting prospect, and not an entirely new one: as amateur astronomers like myself are aware, there’s been talk of a once abundant water supply on mars for some time, starting with NASA’s Mariner 9 space orbiter, which was the first to discover indirect evidence of the presence of water  (circa 1971). There is clear evidence of water being present in frozen – and to a lesser degree, vaporous – states as well. There may have even once been rivers, oceans, and other bodies of water on mars, as this artistic rendering – based on geological data – depicts:

It looks like it'd be a nice place to live, albeit with a lot of adjustments.

However, it’s long been known that whatever the presence or abundance of water in the past, Mars currently cannot support liquid water in any sustainable way. It’s pressure and temperature are far too low, leading to almost immediate freezing. There is still a question as to where all the presumed water from the planet’s past went to, as what remains detectable in the ice caps is far too low to account for it all (many researchers have suggested that there is water, in some form or another, beneath the surface of the planet).

So with all this established, what’s the big deal about this latest finding? Well, it suggests that water does in fact exist in liquid form, at least for some amount of time. Apparently, the Martian summer, previously considered to mild to have any sort of melting effect, has at least in some areas been able to cause seasonal melting. As the article linked before notes:

At a few spots, the meager warmth of martian summer seems able to coax enough liquid water out of the ground to darken the soil in streaks. The marks, which sometimes number in the hundreds, grow downhill hundreds of meters only to fade with the winter cold. And where there is liquid water, as they say, there could be life.

The bold was added on my part, and it emphasizes what I am most excited about. Now, I’m well aware that this is still a very new discovery, and that the possibility of life on Mars, which has long held promise only to disappoint, is still a distant prospect. But I’m still anxiously awaiting any more new information we can find about this fascinating and enigmatic planet. As for most humans throughout history, Mars has always captivated me. Aside from it’s geological and astronomical beauty, I find it’s teases about harboring of life – or at least the potential for ife – irresistible. I’m also a big fan of the idea of terraforming the planet some time in the future, albeit the very distant future – it’s far too costly both financial and technologically, to say nothing of political coordination that would need to be involved.

All of this makes me very excited about the rise of new space powers like China, India, and even Brazil. I really hope the US and other developed nations, grappling with issues about public spending and austerity, somehow manage to rekindle their space exploring ambitions (indeed, this recent discovery was courtesy of the beleaguered NASA). I’m saddened by the the growing perception that outer space exploration is going to fall out of favor, though I hold out hope for the apparent trend of privately-led and funded space exploration efforts (which by the way should consist of more than just the popularly received spacecraft, but telescopes and orbiters as well).

Sure enough, just as I write this, another new discovery being embarked on in advance: NASA just launched the Juno probe in the hopes of gleaning more information on the gas giant Jupiter (the name is rather creative as well, since Juno was Jupiter’s wife in Roman mythology, and was able to see through his veil and uncover his goings-on behind it). It pleases me to see space exploration continue on despite tough times for funding and government spending. I can’t wait for the outcome of this one (which I’ll no doubt be blogging about).

I personally believe that as humankind begins to understand the mechanics and details of this planet, it’ll be coaxed into the vast unknown that beckons. Many may grimly add, as some scientists have, the are current abuse of the planet, if unabated, will anyway require us to look to space for a new home (a popular trope in science fiction for a reason). In any case, the great and big universe that surrounds us, be it near or far, will await us. In the mean time, I will keep dreaming, and can only hope that I’ll live long enough to see space travel become the norm, or Mars become the site of a future human civilization.