The question of whether or not there is or ever was life on Mars remains unanswered and we may not know for a while longer as NASA’s Perseverance Rover’s first attempt at collecting samples to return to Earth came up empty – literally! On August 6th, the rover drilled into the Martian ground but was unable to collect any rock or dirt from the Red Planet.
But there may be another way to find out if Mars ever had life. In a new paper by scientists Ryuki Hyodo and Tomohiro Usui from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), they claimed that Mars’ moon Phobos may provide the answer regarding the possibility of ancient life on the Red Planet and that the upcoming 2024 launch of the Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission should help with getting that information as the spacecraft will collect samples from the moon’s regolith to return to Earth.
So, why Phobos? Since Mars had sustained numerous meteor impacts over billions of years that would have flung pieces of the planet into space, some of that debris may have landed on its moon. And in that debris, there may be evidence of organic molecules, chemical biosignatures, fossilized microorganisms, and even DNA.
This is actually quite possible as we have found fragments of Mars right here on Earth with the meteorite named Allan Hills 84001 (or ALH 84001). The meteorite, which was discovered in Antarctica back in 1984 by geologists, was believed to have formed 4 billion years ago on the Red Planet and crashed into Earth around 13,000 years ago.
The debris that possibly flew into Phobos from meteor impacts may provide scientists with all of the important factors in searching for past life on the Red Planet as Hyodo and Usui explained, “The random nature of the crater-forming impacts on Mars statistically delivers all possible Martian materials, from sedimentary to igneous rocks that cover all of its geological eras.”
If there was life on Mars and if it was thrown into space by an impact, it is probably dead by now, so that’s why the MMX craft will be looking to collect Sterilized and Harshly Irradiated Genes, and Ancient Imprints (or SHIGAI which means “dead remains” in Japanese).
Based on how close the moon is to its planet, debris from Mars could have certainly made its way there. Discovered by astronomer Asaph Hall in 1877, Phobos is the larger of Mars’ two moons (the other is named Deimos), measuring 17 by 14 by 11 miles (27 by 22 by 18 kilometers). It is so close to the planet that it completes three orbits each Earth day and it is constantly moving closer to Mars at a rate of 6 feet (1.8 meters) every hundred years.