Are we all Martians? The curious hunt for life on Mars

NASA's newest rover Curiosity, is zipping through space, slated to enter the Martian atmosphere early morning eastern time on Monday, August 6. (Image: NASA)

At the PBS NewsHour site, space journalist Miles O'Brien recounts the history of human exploration of the red planet, leading up to this Sunday's planned landing by the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity. It's gonna be a nail-biter. Snip:

Ralph Harvey is a professor of planetary minerals at Case University. He spends a lot of time looking for Mars meteors in Antarctica. He has not yet seen anything that says "life" to him:

"When we argue about signs of possible life on Mars it's always the most subtle thing you can imagine," he told me a few years ago. "Something at the very edge of measurability, and life did not proceed that way on earth. Life is in your face. Life is something we have to scrape off the rocks to get to the story of the rocks. And I don't see that on Mars. I don't have that sense about Mars. So life on Mars is going to have to get in my face for me to believe it."

But what if life on Mars is hiding deep beneath the surface -- say in an underground aquifer? Could there be an underground habitable zone on Mars today?

Are We All Martians? The Curious Hunt for Life on Mars (


  1. Just because life is not “in your face” on Mars (eloquently put, by the way) does not mean that it is a requirement for life to exist.  The logical fallacy in that sentiment is blatant.  Life will be found in varying quantities depending on the conditions –our own oceans and desolate regions are proof of this. 

    What we need are governments and the people behind these sorts of endeavors, and we need the funds to be able research these things in their entirety.  Sporadically sending rovers when the budget allows can only get us so far.  It is a shame to see these kinds of frontiers be carelessly thrown aside for trivial political debates and squabbles.

    1. Nope, I’ll never tire of it.  Bringing back samples from an asteroid and having a football-stadium sized structure flying in our orbit are fascinating enough – imagine having people live on another planet! Oh, and if we do find martian life, it will have real consequences about what we understand about our universe.

      We need to get our asses to Mars.

    2. Why explore at all?

      Why leave the town you grew up in?

      Why leave the yard?

      Why leave the house?

      Why ever get out of bed?

      Why bother breathing?

      One can distill one indisputable idea out of the history of philosophy: the meaning of life must be the perception and articulation of being in the universe.

      All of it.

      We’ve barely peeked over the edge of the nest just yet.

      Soon we’ll soar.

    3. Is anybody else just getting tired of hearing about Mars?


      The more missions, the less people care about it.


      Why do we keep going there?

      Because it is nearby, relatively easy to explore, and suitably positioned to support or have once supported life, and we are almost certain liquid water once flowed on the surface, indicating good conditions for life.

      Because finding extraterrestrial life or evidence of its past existence will answer some of the most basic questions human beings have posed about the nature of the universe and our place in it.

      We may be poised, in our short lifetimes,  to have certain knowledge of something our species has fantasised and philosophised about since we left the caves.

      Sorry if we’re keeping you up.

    4.  Really?  Are you serious?  If you have no curiosity in your soul, I feel sorry for you.  Maybe you should just go watch the Kardashians or something.

      1. No it’s just that this doesn’t interest me.  It once did.

        I’m a huge follower of developments in AI, and I like designing electronic circuits.  I’m really trying to push the boundaries of rhythm in my music studies (metric modulation).  I’m very curious about how to proceed, it seems like I’ve hit a wall despite some minor breakthroughs.   I investigated the Chapman Stick because I was curious, now I play a different brand of touch guitar.   Trying to push the envelope in what I do.(seems like everything I do)

    5. “Why do we keep going there?”

      Because it is an entire planet to explore, and we’ve barely scratched the surface. Because it’s the only planet we can readily send things too (nothing survives long enough on Venus, and the others are too far. Because there is water on Mars, we have reason to believe that it was once liquid, and on Earth life formed pretty quickly in geological history. 

    1. I doubt it’s subtle, objectively. It’s just that we’re doing science through an exceedingly tiny keyhole, with remote devices and optics that, while astoundingly clever in design, are limited by the distance to which they must be safely tossed.

      The particular flavor of methane visible in the atmosphere of Mars is unlikely to be geologic in origin. A century from now, that flavor will be probably be called “obvious.” Just like the chemistry results from Viking, and the PAHs and mineral structures in ALH-84001, and the organic compounds in the Enceladus geysers. They’re all obvious signs of life. We’re just not yet ready to go from obvious to indisputable.

      When we do (probably quite soon) have observations of an oxygen rich atmosphere in an exoplanet, I bet we’ll come up with all kinds of ways to explain it as “not life”, and that’s appropriate. Better to be skeptical than too easily convinced of the results most of us probably expect and hope for.

  2. Some sort of life,  most likely bacterial, no doubt existed there ONCE ! When Mars had a magnetic field, and therefore an atmosphere.  No doubt it died out when the magnetic field, and with it the atmosphere went away. The only question is “did it leave enough evidence in enough places that we’ll ever PROVE it??”

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