So there’s no life on Mars — that just means there’s more room for us

Colby Cosh on the Martian takeover of the American space-exploration agenda


NASA / New York Times / Redux

NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover has reminded everyone that curiosity is a virtue not always rewarded justly. On Sept. 19, NASA announced that an instrument on the extraplanetary buggy designed to detect the presence of methane in the Martian atmosphere had found, to a pretty close approximation, none at all. The finding shocked earthling scientists, many of whom had expected to find at least a little CH4 on the surface. Spectrometer measurements made from Earth, and on flybys by earlier Mars probes, had all pointed to the likelihood of small amounts of methane.

Of the data suggesting the possibility of indigenous life on Mars, these methane measurements had probably been the strongest. Most of the methane in the Earth’s atmosphere is created by biological activity, largely fermentation in wetlands or in the guts of larger animals like us. Our planet has a fairly steady “methane cycle,” much like the water cycle, that is mostly dependent on bacteria and their single-celled cousins the archaea. Until Curiosity reported its surprising results, much of the debate between researchers was over whether the methane thought to be on Mars could be non-biological in origin. Now, barring some sort of instrumentation error, it seems that if there are beasties up there, they’re awfully good at holding in their farts.

One must guard against the danger exobiologists call “carbon chauvinism”; extraterrestrial life could conceivably have some entirely different chemical basis, or could involve phenomena at scales yet unimagined by humans. That said, there are very good reasons for carbon chauvinism. Nothing else seems to make as good a building block for the self-reproducing, orderly structures that define life and make it possible. It forms huge, stable molecules that allow for information coding schemes like the DNA double helix. The proposed alternatives to carbon-based life tend to have a fantastic, fairy-tale flavour, given what we know for sure about the relative abundance of the various elements in the universe.

Methane is the simplest of all hydrocarbons, and its apparent absence in the Martian atmosphere is a real blow to those who hoped to find life there. Martian life is not only not making methane; it is apparently not making anything more complex that would break down into methane. Curiosity has more methane tests to perform, and the European Space Agency is sending up a “trace gas orbiter” in 2016. But this test was the experimentum crucis, the high-stakes exam. Methane in a planet’s atmosphere is what one NASA scientist once classified as a “Category II biosignature.” This would have counted as a pretty intense signal in a scheme wherein Category I is basically “The aliens just built a Quiznos and a statue of Michael Jackson.”

We have all been spectators to the Martian takeover of the American space-exploration agenda, such as it is. An insecure America, nostalgic for the frequent research conquests and the peaceable belligerence of the space race with the Soviets, looks with ever brighter eyes toward the next rock out from the Sun. The international non-profit Mars One project, which has a sketchy program for a manned mission in 2023, has found that thousands of people around the world are eager to sign up for what is very likely to be a one-way trip.

NASA, in its quest for a popular, captivating raison d’être, has at times oversold evidence of possible life on Mars nearly to the point of hype. It is hard to foresee what effect the Great Methane Disappointment of 2013 will have on the publicity machine. Like it or not, a major pretext for unmanned data-gathering missions to Mars, missions like Curiosity’s, will have been lost. But it may mean we can go there personally and do whatever the hell we like, in the authentic, arrogant tradition of Western exploration.

Mars is the only convenient laboratory we have right now for exploring alternative origins of life, and some even think earthly life may have originated there before being carried here on bits of rock and dust. If Mars proves to be a dud, we will not be under any obligation to treat it as an irreplaceable nature preserve, any more than we do Earth’s moon—not that we are doing much with that yet. Instead of dreaming of a handful of doomed, miserable one-way colonists munching hydroponic quinoa in an inflatable tent, we could start imagining more ambitious terraforming projects, envisioning how we would change Mars on the grand scale in order to make it more habitable.

Want to hit Mars with nukes to construct underground caves for later occupation? Or seed it randomly with shiploads of our own hardy “extremophile” micro-organisms and see which ones thrive? Let’s go for it! Nobody’s using it! Maybe the party’s just getting started.

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So there’s no life on Mars — that just means there’s more room for us

  1. NASA hasn’t ‘discovered’ any life so far, that’s all. It doesn’t mean there isn’t any.

    ‘Terraforming’ Mars [Marsaforming?] is what we’re aiming for though. We’ll learn how through climate change here. Geoengineering.

    • Terraforming is correct, ie. “turn it to Earth”. Marsforming would mean turn it to Mars, eh?

      • Well, returning it to a Mars that used to exist.

        • nope. Terraforming is correct. You’re really not very good at this, are you?

  2. Maybe we need to start giant tire fires there to pump as much CO2 and soot into the atmosphere as possible, which will cause the temperatures to stabilize at warmer levels, and provide fodder for green plants some centuries in the future?

    OK, so tires may be hard to export, but maybe a nuke-fired mega laser smoking a few giant mountains… and Al Gore, he exudes enough hot air to make up the difference.

    • Mars doesn’t have an atmosphere.

      • yes it does.

        a very thin one, but still rich in enough chemicals to be useful. also, enough to enable winged flight, and lighter than air flight i.e balloons.

        • Read the thread first.

          • yeah, i’ve read it. it’s mostly you just trying to worm your way out of the fact that Mars has an atmosphere, and you seem to use a definition of “atmosphere” which nobody else uses..

          • It’s me trying to discuss life on Mars….not tangents.

          • you aren’t doing a very good job of it.

            maybe google “atmosphere” first. then you will understand what the article is about.

          • That’s it. No more warnings.


          • “warnings”? you mean you are going to disappear from the thread, and take your uneducated nonsense with you?

            oh no…..please give us another chance!!

      • Mars has an atmosphere, but it is very thin, less dense than what you get on the top of everest, mostly CO2, and thus cannot support any animal life. Plants might grow there, although the thinness of the atmosphere, and the extreme cold, would make it tough for them as well. I dont know why you keep saying mars has no atmsphere, unless by atmosphere you mean only an earth atmosphere capable of supporting animals. But to most of us atmosphere means there is air, even if it is thin and we cant breath it. Now the moon does not have an atmosphere, or at least if it does it is so thin to not be worth considering.

    • @EmilyOne

      You are incorrect. It even precipitates (rain/snow) on Mars. See photos of snow from Phoenix Lander. http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/phoenix/news/phoenix-20080929.html

      @Martin Hutchison You don’t have to pump up the CO2 there is already plenty there, locked up in the Ice Caps. Finding a way to increase, or re-start, the Martian vulcanism would help as well. And we have bacteria that will poop CO2, given the right conditions.

      Of course if we could arrange to drop several large comets on Mars that would be jolly well indeed.

      • Canada discovered snow on Mars….however it doesn’t have an atmosphere.

        • Yes. Yes Mars has an atmosphere. Had you deigned to read the link I posted above you would have discovered it SNOWING on Mars.

          The NASA like below will tell you that Mars has a atmosphere.


          “The Martian atmosphere is an extremely thin sheet of gas, principally carbon dioxide, that extends from the surface of Mars to the edge of space. The Martian atmosphere is less dense than the Earth’s atmosphere, but there are many similarities. Gravity holds the atmosphere to the Martian surface. Within the atmosphere, very complex chemical, thermodynamic, and fluid dynamics effects occur. The atmosphere is not uniform; fluid properties are constantly changing with time and place, producing weather on Mars just like on Earth.”

          • Mars has mostly C02….not an atmosphere. It is nothing like earth.

            Don’t waste time arguing this. The topic is ‘life’.

          • No, tisn’t. The subject is atmosphere. And you are mistaken.

            Mars has an atmosphere. Mars has weather.

            Whether Mars has life, or not, is still an open question, and will remain an open question for decades to come.

          • It’s still an atmosphere. From your comments I gather you don’t know the definition of the term.

          • I said don’t bother arguing about Googalable matters. People are busy.

          • It’s great how no matter how repeatedly EmilyOne is shown to be completely and totally wrong, she never learns a thing. Her strategies for dealing with her mistakes and failures would embarass a 10 year old – change topic, pretend she was talking about something else, wild personal attacks, and then mention Harper. And then somehow she has the gall to suggest she is a tough minded realist.

          • LOL Topic here is life on Mars. None of you have addressed it.

            I have no idea why you’d want to run the usual Con gamut on this article…there’s no percentage in it for you. Practice maybe?

            Or are you auditioning as well? Sorry, Rick is back.

          • That’s a really neat trick, Emily. It’s like you read my critique of your inept debating skills and then sought to refute them through self parody. Let’s see – changed topic? Check. Personal insults? Check. Reference to Conservatives (in an article that has nothing to do with politics)? Check.
            I’d love to think you were doing this on purpose. It would be much more interesting if your posts were an elaborate performance art piece, whereby you seek to post the most block headed comments imaginable just to see how people respond. But I doubt it.

          • You’re boring me, and everyone else as well no doubt.

            And for no reason.


          • Actually, I don’t think you should speak for “everybody else”. I for one am bored of YOUR ignorance on the subject of a Martian atmosphere…. and for your “googleable” reference, you should search the phrase ” Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission” or “MAVEN”… it’s a NASA probe to investigate the Martian atmosphere, as it says in the title. Maybe you can write to NASA, and let them know that they are wrong…you may save them some cash.

          • Another hot dog. Don’t you folks have anything better to do?

          • I have noticed Emily throwing the “Con” thing around like confetti at a wedding lately. It really has worn razor-thin.

          • you are deeply mistaken. Mars DOES have an atmosphere, rich in carbon dioxide.

            google “NASA Mars ARES spaceplane”…. how could NASA design an aircraft that uses LIFT, which can ONLY exist in a fluid atmosphere, if there is no atmosphere.

            I think you will find that the Moon has a slight and small atmosphere too…

          • The topic here is life on Mars. The rest is googleable.

          • the topic is methane, which is a biosignature for “life”….

            without an atmosphere, all the methane would just disappear into space.

          • The headline is ‘life’. We are guessing on the methane as other readings have shown it.

            And methane may not be a signature for life elsewhere.

          • is that all you have to add? that’s the mighty conclusion? well, I’m glad I stuck around for your expert opinion.

          • This is amusing reading @EmilyOne trying to argue that Mars does not have an atmosphere, NASA would not have tested for Methane if mars had no atmosphere.

  3. It is a bit, ah, premature to claim whether there is, or isn’t life on Mars.

    • Very true, the title is misleading. Life as we know it is not, or may not, be there.

  4. We should work on how to live well and prosperous on Earth – forget Mars , it is a nonsense .

    • If the human race wants to continue indefinably we need to move to other star systems, Mars is part of the Sun system yes I know but it is a good place to start. Understanding life or lack their of on other planets would be a tool to help us pick out future planets to live on.
      We did not necessarily screw up our atmosphere as this is not the first time global warming has happened, even if all of the people disappeared from Earth global warming would still happen it is a natural event.

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