There’s a chance we will eventually find evidence for life on Mars. It might be that the evidence was that life once existed on Mars and no longer does (extinct) or that it is there now (extant). These are two quite distinct occurrences that will challenge humanity in how to deal with that revelation. Finding that there was once life on Mars will help us understand the mechanisms for life that may exist in other parts of the Solar System or further afield. The study of that life will be the biggest forensic investigation in the history of our species as we strive to piece together what happened and how did life on the planet become extinct.On the other hand, finding that life is present on Mars now would leave us facing the question, what do we do about it? Similarly to the first situation, it would give us the opportunity to discover the mechanisms for how life kicked off on the plant, which may give us insights into how the same thing happened here on Earth. Significantly though, what would be the impact on humanity, our beliefs, the way we interact with each other and how we might look at and treat Mars into the future and what responsibility will we have for protecting Mars, from us.
The cemetery of the Martians
If we discover, in the not too distant future, that life was once on Mars but now is extinct, we would be faced with one of the the biggest scientific questions that we have faced as a species. That question would be, what happened to make life extinct on Mars? We would need to build a deep understanding of the mechanisms that created life, how it flourished and then, ultimately what happened to kill it off. We might find that life struggled to keep a foothold on the planet, never really got well established and then as quickly disappeared, as it appeared. Life is fleeting and is precarious, our own experience on Earth has shown that there was a few times that life was hanging in the balance and for most of it’s existence here, it was a single cell life, with billions of years passing before multi celled organisms appeared.
We may well find signs of long dead remnants of single celled life forms on the red planet, just like we look at signs of early life on Earth in Pilbara, Australia. Hopefully we can understand the make up of what these cells were and see what comparisons there are to life on our own planet. Maybe we can gain an understanding of how these cells lived and if they were able to adapt to the Martian environment as life did on Earth. Finding that life started on at least two places that we know about in the universe would take us a step closer to understanding the mechanism that starts life. Maybe we started out the same as Mars, maybe life starts very easily to begin with but then as the planets diverged in their development and conditions on Mars were just to harsh, the fledgling beginnings of life could not hold on, whereas on Earth they flourished. Understanding when life died out would help us uncover the mechanisms that led to a successful planet wide extinction, was it sudden or was it something that took a couple of billions of years. If it was sudden, we could build an understanding of just how fast events can happen that don’t allow evolution to keep up, so that life can adapt to the challenges being brought against it.
We would, no doubt discover sites where early life was evident, it may take a long time, especially if there is not much evidence to begin with. These sites would become incredibly important to our appreciation of Mars as they would be the natural cemetery for the Mars that could have been. We would be compelled to protect these sites and ensure that they weren’t damaged, but preserved, so that the evidence of Martian life could remain well into the future and be used as a comparison for when we find it in other parts of the Solar System or in other parts of the Galaxy.
What if life is there now
Then we turn to the situation of finding life that exists now, that is surviving the harshness of the Martian environment, that has adapted to the lower gravity, more radiation, dimmer light, different atmosphere and cold. It would be hard to imagine that life on Mars could be described as flourishing as one would imagine that we would have found evidence of it by now. So any life that may be present there now is probably just surviving, maybe it’s slowly dying out. Humanity would be faced with the question, how do we preserve life on Mars? Do we try to protect it or just leave it alone? History would suggest that we are unlikely to just leave it alone, as Mars is in a very handy location for Earth. How do we protect the extremely fragile ecosystem that we might find, what measures would we put in place to ensure the survival of any life that’s there and make sure that we don’t inadvertently destroy it?
Let’s not cause an extinction event on another planet
Discovery of life on Mars would imply that we have a responsibility to protect it and not do anything that would destroy it. So what should we be thinking about now, to ensure we don’t find that we caused an extinction event on Mars that destroyed the Solar System’s most fragile ecosystem? We should be making sure that any landing sites we identify are resilient to what we might do to them when landing our landers, resupply spaceships etc. We need to make sure that the initial vehicles are low impact and don’t interfere with the Martian terrain. Once we establish an area is completely clear of life then we can be a bit more rough and bring in the heavy gear. Maybe our exploration of Mars should be centred in one area first so we can create a perimeter that we know for certain is clear of any fragile life forms and then we slowly move out from there once we clear the areas, kind of like picking our way through a minefield.
We have to be meticulous and make sure that every stone unturned is carefully treated and everything we move we understand the impact of mowing it. Our historic ‘bull in a china shop’ approach to ecosystems could do irreversible damage Mars. We only get one chance to get this right so we should be thinking and planing about this now. It might be that the UN should set up a Mars Planetary Protection Office, to protect Mars from us.