These past two months have been exciting for believers in extra-terrestrial life, as well as for anyone who has ever looked up at the stars and wondered, “Why?” Now, for the skeptics in the house, I’m not making any rash conclusions here: I would never say (and could never say) that there is definitely life on Mars or anywhere other than on Earth. But, between you, me, Mercury, and Mars; we seem to be on the edge of finding traces of life somewhere other than Earth.
And to all those people who happen to share my optimism, there is probably life out there.
Even more important than the extra-terrestrial debate, are the implications that space exploration has for humanity. We as a species must always strive to expand outward; mentally and physically. The exciting news coming out of NASA these past few months, while not entirely Earth shattering, grips us in a way only human endeavor can. Regardless of what is found, we have a deep necessity to find out what lies beyond the frontiers of our knowledge and getting that information back from our probes moves us forward as one species.
Discoveries that shed light on our place in the universe are humbling and gratifying moments that should not be taken for granted.
Just Monday, NASA made an announcement that they had built up as groundbreaking. In a press release last week, NASA hailed Curiosity’s first official soil-sample as nothing short of historical. However, when they released the findings Monday, the Curiosity team was being careful to keep low expectations of the findings and the meaning of the findings. This is an organization that has learned early on how eager the public is to get information on Mars and anything that is prematurely reported will wind up being a huge embarrassment (NASA still has the scars from 1996).
That said, the announcement made Monday should not be dismissed as nothing. The Curiosity rover has completed its first on-surface analysis of Martian soil. The very fact that something created by humans is 34 million miles away (at the closest distance apart), collecting soil samples, analyzing it without a scientist present and then sending the results back to Earth is enough to be amazed by. But, couple that with what Curiosity found and the results truly are incredible: The soil on Mars, according to NASA, is of a more complex make-up than previously thought. Of the samples obtained, “Water and sulfur and chlorine-containing substances, among other ingredients, showed up.”
While the compounds found on the Martian surface does not answer the question of life having been there with a definitive “yes” or “no,” the samples do support the notion of what scientist believe needs to be present in order for life to be supported. Carbon was detected, but NASA is keeping it out of their findings until they are completely sure it was not carbon carried from Florida on board Curiosity.
Mars holds an almost romantic fascination in our minds and it has for over 40 years now. So much so, that NASA has learned to keep their findings under the radar until they have something definitive to report. But, while announcements about what could possibly be on Mars make news, little attention was given to a very interesting development in our exploration of Mercury last month. Data collected from NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft definitively proved the existence of water-ice in craters of Mercury’s North Pole.
Three independent research projects published their findings at the same time pointing to the existence of water-ice in Mercury’s craters. Excess hydrogen was detected with MESSENGER’s Neutron Spectrometer, the reflectance of Mercury’s polar deposits were measured at “near-infrared wavelengths” with the Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA) and detailed models of the surface and near-surface temperatures on Mercury were also constructed using the MLA. While Earth is tilted on its axis, Mercury has virtually no-tilt. This allows cold temperatures and ice to exist at its poles while still being so close to the sun.
The ice-water lies underneath dark, seemingly organic compounds on the surface of Mercury. According to scientists and Scott Sutherland from the Geekquinox, these organic compounds are the basic building blocks for life. As Sutherland wrote, “According to one of the papers written from this data, this dark material shows evidence of organic compounds, which were likely deposited on the planet by comet and meteorite impacts.” So while there is no definitive announcement regarding life on Mercury, there remain the ingredients for life to have existed in a place where scientists had doubts about anything surviving before.
The recent news from both the Curiosity and the MESSENGER teams is exciting in a very universal way. Putting the extra-terrestrial life argument off to the side for a moment, there is an important take-away from these news stories that unifies more than it divides: humans need to explore. The ingenuity of humanity is constantly creating technology that pushes the frontiers of what we know farther and further outwards. Mercury and Mars pose possibilities on the very edge of the frontier of our human understanding. To analyze a sample of Martian soil is to look at something we have never experienced before.
The future of exploration, innovation, and humanity itself lies in the small steps we take as a world to discover just how small we are in the universe. A soil sample from Mars, or definitive water found on Mercury, can have profound implications on humanity itself. NASA continues to push our frontiers further than ever before and it is these small moments of discovery that frame humanity as a unified existence moving forward together. On top of that, let’s look into the power NASA has to help revive the American economy.
On a final note, to bring the extra-terrestrials back into the conversation, a gut-feeling tells me there was life on Mercury.