Mars is both a wonderful and a terrible place to go looking for life. On the one hand, the planet is a wasteland, where wintertime temperatures plunge to -153º C (-225º F), and the atmosphere—such as it is—is just 1% the density of Earth’s and composed principally of carbon dioxide.
On the other hand, the Red Planet wasn’t always such a wreck. For the first billion or so years of its 4.5 billion year life span, it was awash in oceans and seas and protected by a thick blanket of air. Eventually, however, its magnetic field shut down, allowing the solar wind to claw away the atmosphere and the water to vanish into space.
But that first billion years offered Mars plenty of time to cook up at least microbial life, some of which may have died and left chemical traces on the surface—or even have retreated underground to continue thriving in deep, warm aquifers.
Now, a new study, announced by NASA and published on Jan. 18 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that some of those lingering surface markers of ancient life may have been found—lying in plain sight, in fact.
While humans have been struggling to control the Covid-19 pandemic, baking in record heat, and trying to figure out how not to run out of water, our spacecraft on Mars have been enjoying a rather more tranquil existence.
(Not needing to breathe helps.) Parked on the Martian surface, the InSight lander is listening for marsquakes, while the Perseverance rover is rolling around in search of life.
This week, scientists are dropping an Olympus Mons of findings from the two brave robots. In three papers published today in the journal Science—each authored by dozens of scientists from around the world—researchers detail the clever ways they used InSight’s seismometer to peer deep into the Red Planet, giving them an unprecedented understanding of its crust, mantle, and core.
It’s the first time scientists have mapped the interior of a planet other than Earth. And yesterday, another group of scientists held a press conference to announce early research results from Perseverance, and the next steps the rover will take to explore the surface of Jezero Crater, once a lake that could have been home to ancient microbial life.