Martian-hunting robot successfully touches down

After ‘seven minutes of terror’, NASA’s Mars rover touched down on the Red Planet yesterday morning. It is the most complex robot Mars has yet seen. Its objective: evidence of alien life.

Yesterday morning at 12.30am, NASA’s Mission Control was packed – and deathly silent. For ‘seven minutes of terror,’ row upon row of talented scientists and engineers stared dead ahead, each privately battling with overwhelming suspense. Then a voice came over the speakers: ‘Touchdown confirmed. We are safe on Mars.’

All at once, the room erupted in jubilant whoops and cheers. After travelling hundreds of millions of miles, the robot Curiosity had finally completed the last, and riskiest, part of its voyage. Now, its mission begins in earnest: the hunt for signs of life on Mars.

NASA are keen to point out that the robot will not actually detect alien life forms directly. Curiosity will instead focus on finding hints that life might be present on the planet.

Are there organic particles amid the planet’s red dust? If so, they may well have been produced by living organisms. Does the rocky surface conceal reserves of water? If so, then some of these life forms may live on.

Even if the answers to these questions are yes, that is no guarantee that life on Mars exists. But it would provide a huge boost to those who still hope to discover alien organisms.

Besides Mars, two sites in the Solar System may also harbour life: first, the subterranean oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa; second, icy Titan, which orbits the planet of Saturn. Conditions on both moons are comparable to those on Earth.

If microbes were found on Mars, it would strongly suggest that life is not so rare after all. Besides being a momentous discovery in its own right, that would massively intensify speculation that other intelligent life forms might exist.

But on that point, scientific opinion varies wildly. Using the famous Drake equation for determining the frequency of intelligent life, many have predicted that our galaxy alone contains tens of thousands of alien civilisations. Researchers from Princeton, meanwhile, recently concluded that Earth was almost certainly the only cradle of life in the entire universe.

Is there life on Mars?

If humans ever found alien life, it would be among the most momentous events in the history of science. We have always dreamed of beings that inhabit other worlds, say astronomers. To finally discover that we are not alone, they say, would make the universe an endlessly richer place.

But some more Earthbound observers are disturbed by the idea of alien life. What would it mean for our place in the universe? Or for our system of ethics? Or even religion? Besides, they add, these aliens might be warlike, or simply riddled with bacteria that would extinguish us from existence. We should be careful what we wish for.

You Decide

  1. Is the idea of discovering aliens more scary than exciting?
  2. Is it worth spending huge sums of money looking for alien life when we are unsure whether it even exists?

Activities

  1. Write an imaginary report breaking the news that ‘first contact’ has been made with an alien civilisation.
  2. Do some research into Mars, Europa and Titan – the three places in the Solar System where life might exist – and write a short factfile on each one.

Some People Say...

“If aliens are as selfish and warlike as us, let’s hope we never find them.”

What do you think?

Q & A

If there is intelligent life on other planets, then why haven’t aliens made contact yet?
A very good question: this is a famous problem known as the ‘Fermi paradox.’ One possible solution is that advanced civilisations are so incredibly unlikely that none have yet developed beyond our own. Another is that ‘making contact’ is far more difficult than we tend to assume. But the final possibility is more chilling than either of these.
Go on...
If intelligent life develops frequently, and interstellar communication is possible, then why are we still waiting to hear from the aliens? Perhaps the most likely solution is that civilisations don’t tend to last very long after they are advanced enough for space travel. If this is true, the implications for life on Earth are very worrying indeed.

Word Watch

Seven minutes of terror
For the duration of the spacecraft’s landing sequence, no communication was possible between Curiosity and Mission Control. This landing sequence was more complex than any yet attempted, and could easily have gone disastrously wrong. The brief period between entering the atmosphere and re-establishing contact became known by NASA scientists as the ‘seven minutes of terror’.
Last, and riskiest
The atmosphere of Mars is something of a graveyard for space missions: in almost 70 percent of previous attempts, the landing vehicle has failed to reach the planet’s surface intact.
Organic particles
An organic compound is any gas, liquid or solid whose molecules contain carbon. All known life forms are based on carbon, and many of the processes of life produce organic compounds as a byproduct.
Subterranean oceans
Europa is thought to be home to huge underground expanses of liquid water, crusted and insulated by ice. Forty years ago, scientists would not have believed that life was possible in an environment so deprived of sunlight; but the discovery of life in similar underground reservoirs on Earth has changed scientific opinion radically.
Drake equation
Astronomer Frank Drake came up with his famous formula in 1961, by multiplying together the probabilities of every condition necessary for alien life. These include: the rate of star formation, the frequency of habitable planets, the likelihood of life developing and the probability that life evolves to a point at which civilisations consciously send signals into space.

Subjects

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