For millennia, humankind has asked whether life exists elsewhere in the universe. Mars is the best planet to explore this question. And the answer to this question is “likely yes”. 

Life might have started on Mars

Scientists behind ALFA Mars have identified rocks, minerals, and processes that likely made RNA in early Earth environments. RNA is thought to be the first molecule needed to support life. The same rocks and minerals were on Mars, and might have supported the same processes originating life there.

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Life likely persists wherever it has gained a toehold

Whether life originated on Mars or was introduced via a meteoric exchange, as Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park, “life … um … finds a way”. Mars as a planet has evolved dramatically throughout its history. So has Earth. Life on Earth found a way to adapt to the changing environment during the 4 billion years of its existence. We think that Martian life also “found a way.”

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Life is constantly transported between Earth and Mars

It is possible that life originated on only one of these planets and was transported to the other by impact ejecta. Because of the frequent natural exchange of material, including living bacteria, between planets, any biohazard due to “contamination” from Mars is unlikely.

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Human Presence on Mars May Hinder Martian Life Discovery

SpaceX, NASA, and the Chinese National Space Agency plan to send humans to Mars as early as the 2030s. Once humans are present on Mars, the task of finding indigenous life becomes more difficult. After humans arrived, the task will also require distinguishing indigenous biosignatures from Earth-delivered biosignatures.

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We may have already found signatures of Martian Microbes

In 1976, NASA landed two Viking probes on Mars, designed to find signs of life there. All three Viking life-finding experiments (run on parallel on two landers) were consistent with the presence of Martian microbes. One experiment was strongly so. So we already have reason to think that life arose on Mars, and “found a way” to persist there.

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We know where to look for life on Mars

Near surface water-ice mixed with Martian dust representing the entire Martian surface is found on Mars at mid-latitudes. If this ice were on Earth, it would hold a biosphere. This is where to look for Martian microbes.

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We know when to look for life on Mars

The mid-latitude ice will be mined as a resource before the first humans arrive on Mars. It will be melted and used to manufacture propellant to return those humans to Earth. An “agnostic life finder” (ALF) that recovers polyelectrolytes from the Martian water is a low-cost add-on to the mining operation.

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We know how to look for life on Mars

Scientists behind ALFA Mars are internationally recognized for making (in the laboratory) alternative forms of DNA. This work discovered molecular structures that give us targets for seeking alien DNA, agnostically, without needing to know any of the details of how that life later evolved. One of these structures is a repeating charge, a “polyelectrolyte”. Polyelectrolytes are easy to isolate from the Martian water.

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Currently no one else plans to find Martian life before human arrival to Mars

After the Viking missions in the 1970s NASA stopped looking for extant life on Mars. NASA currently does not plan to look for life in situ on Mars at least in the next two decades. Why not?

Because data from one Viking instrument, a “gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer” (GC-MS), were misinterpreted to show that the Martian soil contained no organic matter, thought to be essential for life. In 2000 Steven Benner (a member of ALFA Mars) and others, showed that NASA’s interpretation was wrong (ref.).

The GC-MS could not have found organics at the Viking site even if it had been atop a pile of them. We now know that organics are abundant in Martian soil. Nevertheless this misinterpretation persists in NASA’s culture, and affects NASA’s decisions even today.

For example, NASA’s Network for Life Detection workshops inform students that we might begin to look for the extant Martian microbes, but only in the 2040s, at the earliest.

Therefore, if Martian life is to be found before humans arrive on Mars, it must be done by a private mission. And that means you.

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