People got very excited in 2004 when NASA’s rover Opportunity discovered evidence that Mars had once been wet. Where there is water, there may be life. After more than 40 years of human exploration, culminating in the ongoing Mars Exploration Rover mission, scientists are planning still more missions to study the planet. The Phoenix, an interagency scientific probe led by the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, is scheduled to land in late May on Mars’s frigid northern arctic, where it will search for soils and ice that might be suitable for microbial life (see “Mission to Mars,” November/December 2007). The next decade might see a Mars Sample Return mission, which would use robotic systems to collect samples of Martian rocks, soils, and atmosphere and return them to Earth. We could then analyze the samples to see if they contain any traces of life, whether extinct or still active.
Such a discovery would be of tremendous scientific significance. What could be more fascinating than discovering life that had evolved entirely independently of life here on Earth? Many people would also find it heartening to learn that we are not entirely alone in this vast, cold cosmos.
But I hope that our Mars probes discover nothing. It would be good news if we find Mars to be sterile. Dead rocks and lifeless sands would lift my spirit.
Conversely, if we discovered traces of some simple, extinct life-form–some bacteria, some algae–it would be bad news. If we found fossils of something more advanced, perhaps something that looked like the remnants of a trilobite or even the skeleton of a small mammal, it would be very bad news. The more complex the life-form we found, the more depressing the news would be. I would find it interesting, certainly–but a bad omen for the future of the human race.
How do I arrive at this conclusion? I begin by reflecting on a well-known fact. UFO spotters, Raëlian cultists, and self-certified alien abductees notwithstanding, humans have, to date, seen no sign of any extraterrestrial civilization. We have not received any visitors from space, nor have our radio telescopes detected any signals transmitted by any extraterrestrial civilization. The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has been going for nearly half a century, employing increasingly powerful telescopes and data-mining techniques; so far, it has consistently corroborated the null hypothesis. As best we have been able to determine, the night sky is empty and silent. The question “Where are they?” is thus at least as pertinent today as it was when the physicist Enrico Fermi first posed it during a lunch discussion with some of his colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory back in 1950.
Here is another fact: the observable universe contains on the order of 100 billion galaxies, and there are on the order of 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone. In the last couple of decades, we have learned that many of these stars have planets circling them; several hundred such “exoplanets” have been discovered to date. Most of these are gigantic, since it is very difficult to detect smaller exoplanets using current methods. (In most cases, the planets cannot be directly observed. Their existence is inferred from their gravitational influence on their parent suns, which wobble slightly when pulled toward large orbiting planets, or from slight fluctuations in luminosity when the planets partially eclipse their suns.) We have every reason to believe that the observable universe contains vast numbers of solar systems, including many with planets that are Earth-like, at least in the sense of having masses and temperatures similar to those of our own orb. We also know that many of these solar systems are older than ours.