Despite the fact that David Bowie’s iconic song about life on Mars says the girl with mousy hair went to “the seat with the clearest view,” that’s not always good advice for finding things on Mars. If you can’t find your car keys, do you look for them in hard-to-reach places or just in the easy spots with the best lighting? An expert on the search for extraterrestrial life thinks the best-selling show that is the Perseverance rover is looking in the wrong places for the life forms that she believes are all over Mars. As Bowie would surely ask about little Persy: “Wonder if he’ll ever know?”
“You can walk on the same landscape for miles and find nothing. Then, maybe because the slope changes by a fraction of a degree, the texture or the mineralogy of the soil is different because there is more protection from UV, all of a sudden, life is here. What matters in extreme worlds to find life is to understand the patterns resulting from these interactions”.
Dr. Nathalie Cabrol, Director of the Carl Sagan Center for Research at the SETI Institute, became an expert on searching for life on Mars by searching for life in an extreme place on Earth — the Chilean altiplano, a cold arid plateau high in the Andes. What Cabrol learned there is that the search for life forms on Mars – which she believes is teaming with it – must start billions of years ago when Mars became the extreme environment it still is today. From that perspective, she now believes it’s not enough to just look for water – rovers, helicopters, satellites and humans must look at the total interaction between the thin Martian atmosphere, its UV radiation, salinity of the soil, wind, temperature fluctuations, water and more – that’s what she calls the engine or biosphere that keeps microbial life functioning. And, if you don’t see it on the surface, you look in the harder places, like …
“Importantly, dispersal mechanisms still exist today, and they connect the deep interior to the subsurface.”
We need more that the tiny drills on the rovers. We need more than the few rovers. We need wide coverage, a lot more eyes – human and electronic – scanning the surface for the patterns that reflect the engine of the subsurface and the deep cracks where microbial life could be hiding. Of course, we also need to dig while at the same time preserving the fragile environment supporting this life.
Bottom line for Cabrol – there’s life all over Mars but it’s deep beneath the surface. David Bowie was right again. It won’t be the spiders that find life on Mars.
“Oh man, look at those cavemen go.”