Nasa’s daring mission to find life on Mars

Ancient lake: The Mars 2020 Rover will land in a crater that was once fed by numerous rivers. © NASA

Can we finally unlock the mystery of Mars? A new mission to the Red Planet will explicitly search for signs of life. If there ARE little green men up there, we will soon find them.

We know that there is water on Mars.

Although it is mostly frozen today, we think that, billions of years ago, the whole planet would have been warmer and covered by oceans.

As far as we know, liquid water is likely an important clue in the intergalactic search for aliens.

Indeed, life-forms might have once thrived on Mars, millions and millions of years before anything blinked or burped on our Blue Planet.

Nasa, the US space agency responsible for putting humans on the moon, is getting ready to launch its newest interplanetary mission: Mars 2020. The goal? To find life.

It is one of the great questions of science, one that has inspired songs, TV shows, and conspiracy theories.

Space agencies and private companies alike are setting their sights on sending people to Mars. So the time is ripe to be certain we will not be sharing the Red Planet with any aliens.

A year from now, a capsule will come hurtling towards Mars carrying the next high-tech rover. It will have 23 cameras, 53cm-wide wheels, and will be accompanied by a drone.

Previous successful missions to Mars focused on analysing the planet’s climate and geology, wondering whether life could have survived – not explicitly looking for signs that it ever did.

This time, astrobiology is front and centre of the mission. The rover will look for signs of life, collect Martian soil, and attempt to synthesise oxygen out of the CO2-heavy atmosphere on Mars.

Just last year, Gilbert V Levin made the controversial claim that Nasa had found life on Mars some 40 years ago.

One of the scientists behind the 2020 mission, Jim Bell, wants to make sure that similar theories can be proved right or wrong. “Let’s bring the samples back,” he said. “So if those extraordinary claims are made, they can be verified.”

While this exciting NASA mission approaches take-off, private space companies are also thriving. Billionaire Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk, has his sights set on colonising Mars, and Richard Branson (the man behind Virgin Galactic) is now openly selling tickets for trips to space.

But finding life would be a bigger breakthrough than any of these other projects. It would change our place in the Universe. We would finally know that we were not alone.

So, can we finally unlock the mystery of Mars?

Another planet

Yes. This new mission is deploying the latest technology, with the primary goal of looking for traces of life and bringing back bits of Martian soil. Science will give us an answer. If life had ever been widespread on the Red Planet, it would probably have left some mark in the bed of an old lake. If not, then we can be fairly sure that there was never any significant life on Mars.

No. The mystery of life on Mars has captivated humanity for centuries, and it will likely continue. Even once we inevitably colonise the planet, we will still be obsessed by uncovering the secrets of its past. It will be almost impossible to prove that life never existed there. We still do not know all the forms that life could take in our complicated and fascinating Universe.

You Decide

  1. What do you think it would mean for humanity if we found life on Mars?
  2. Is finding life on Mars something that we should be spending millions on in 2020? Are there not more important things for governments to focus on?

Activities

  1. In pencil, draw a picture of what you think life on Mars might look like. Write a short paragraph describing it as if it were being featured on a nature documentary.
  2. Imagine that the 2020 mission to Mars fails. Write a proposal on behalf of Nasa asking for more funding, explaining why the mission matters.

Some People Say...

“I think the generation today is the Mars generation.”

Dr Jim Green, Nasa chief scientist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Mars 2020 rover is due to leave earth on 17 July 2020 and will reach Mars on 18 February 2021. It will look for signs of life – both past and present – and collect relevant soil samples. It will also test if we can create oxygen in the Martian atmosphere.
What do we not know?
We have no guarantee that this Mars mission will be successful. The rover could easily land on the wrong part of the planet, or collect inconsequential samples. Even if we did pick some up, we might not be able to recognise Martian life.

Word Watch

Astrobiology
The study of alien life-forms.
Rover
A device specifically engineered to explore the surface of an object in space.
Synthesise
Creating something new, usually through chemistry.
CO2
Carbon Dioxide, a common gas which makes up 5% of the air we breathe out.
Gilbert V Levin
American engineer who investigated the findings of Nasa’s Viking mission to Mars.
Tesla
Electric car company.
Virgin Galactic
The first space tourism company.

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