We’ve spent a ton of money trying to find life on Mars. The US alone has had 20 missions that studied Mars, each with highly advanced hardware either landing on or aimed at the red planet’s surface. We’ve gotten some wonderful info about the make up of the Martian atmosphere and geology, but when it comes to the hunt for Martians, all we’ve gotten to show for it is a steadily increasing garbage heap of million dollar rovers lying around on the surface like beer cans on the front lawn of a frat house.
Purdue professor Jay Melosh thinks we may not have to go quite that far to get results though. He thinks we could possibly find Martians on the surface of the planet’s moon Phobos.
In a recent article at ScienceDaily.com, Melosh says that his work on a study preparing for the doomed Phobos-Grunt Mission revealed that material ejected from the planet’s surface during a large asteroid impact could have been deposited on its small, irregularly-shaped moon. No, it’s not going to be Martians of the three-eyed, tripod-piloting, deathray-wielding sort, but ancient microbes thrown up off the surface of Mars during colossal impacts. Microscopic evidence of life could stay on the surface of Phobos undisturbed by atmospheric effects for 10 million years until radiation exposure destroyed all traces of it. Melosh says that there have been at least 4 impact events in the past 10 million years that have been large enough to deposit material all over Phobos, and that no matter where it was in its orbit at the time, the moon was sure to scoop up some of the debris.
As for the likelihood that some of these microbes might still be alive, Melosh remains hopeful…
It is not outside the realm of possibility that a sample could contain a dormant organism that might wake up when exposed to more favorable conditions on Earth. I participated in a study that found that living microbes can survive launch from impacts on rock, and other studies have shown some microscopic organisms can tolerate a lot of cosmic radiation.
In just 34 days, the biggest robotic rover yet will set down on Mars and begin its hunt for alien life over the next Martian year (687 days). The mission itself is quite an impressive technical feat that will require a combination of parachutes and propulsive landing to land the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars. It would be kind of funny if NASA went through all the trouble to land that huge rover on the surface just to have passed the evidence of life it was looking for on the way in.