With the Perseverance Rover’s landing on Mars on February 18th, the hunt for extraterrestrial life has resurfaced in the public’s eyes. The question of the existence of alien lifeforms has prevailed for as long as we have been studying space itself. Speculations as to what these otherworldly beings may look like range from the popularized green ‘men’ to more realistic possibilities of microbes inhabiting ecosystems on far off planets. It seems that NASA has yet to give up on this notion of life outside of Earth, mostly hypothesizing the existence of microbes rather than the human-like bodies of science fiction. So how did this search begin? What are the steps NASA is taking to effectively broaden their search? In this post, I’ll go over a brief history of NASA’s Mars Exploration program, as well as ponder the implications of this particular landing on Mars and explain its significance.
The 1970s initiated a new type of scientific research, with NASA beginning a small, low funded program to research potential strategies to find evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. This program, however, did not become official until 1984, when it formally became known as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence program (SETI). Driven by the Cold War and the race for the moon landing, the U.S. and the Soviet Union continually sought to send technology to Mars. Initially, the American Mariner spacecraft 4, 6, and 7 delivered the news of no signs of life on Mars, showing a heavily cratered planet with an almost pure carbon dioxide atmosphere. In 1971, the first planetary orbiter, Mariner 9, successfully showed the entire surface of Mars. These images revealed volcanoes and valleys created from past rivers, demonstrating potential evidence for the presence of water on Mars. The only water particles they were able to detect were trace particles of water vapor in the atmosphere. Both the Viking 1 and Viking 2 in 1976 eventually obtained several land samples, but those did not show signs of life. Therefore, as evidence showed lower likelihoods of detecting alien life, funding began to steadily decrease. This funding crisis that lasted until 1982 drove NASA to try and lower costs, ultimately looking to private industries. The 90s brought back some increased funding to explore more of space, with NASA spending the rest of the decade focusing on the completion of the International Space Station. After the completion of the International Space Station, NASA refocused its efforts to lunar exploration; thus, affecting the budget for further Mars exploration. Over time, private contractors and companies have begun to realize the financial opportunities of pioneering space exploration, with some even joining the race for more work on Mars.
Meanwhile, in order to obtain evidence for potential extraterrestrial creatures, SETI heavily utilized radio frequencies. As a newspaper article from 1983 explains, SETI focused on new methods of “developing an instrument capable of scanning 74,000 radio frequencies simultaneously”, which would hopefully aid in initial contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. This radio signal search is the main heart of the SETI program, however, it is still riddled by problematic assumptions of alien communication. Frank Tipler, a renowned cosmologist and physicist, describes the difficulty with relying on Earth’s most common radio frequencies and with SETI, which assumes that alien intelligence will communicate with us through technologies compatible to ours. Paul Davies, a member of the SETI: Post-Detection Science and Technology Task Group, also summarized these feelings by stating, “SETI astronomers assume that an alien civilization anxious to attract our attention would adopt the simplest method appropriate to entry-level radio technology.” These speculations are all built around the assumption that an alien space colony would be able to understand human language and technology. But what about the other side of this alien spectrum? What is NASA doing to pursue evidence for potential microbial life forms? This is where Perseverance comes in…
Perseverance is significant not only for its successful landing on Mars, but also because it carries advanced technology that can detect the existence of potential fossilized microbial life. Specifically equipped with lasers capable of determining the chemical composition of rocks as well as radar that can penetrate through the ground. These will help to be able to detect potential microbial evidence, which will then be sent back to Earth, where scientists can further analyze the results. This heavily equipped rover is also paired with a new piece of technology— Ingenuity, a small helicopter drone capable of flying through Mars’ atmosphere. Astronomers and scientists alike will be ready to see the significant findings from both the Perseverance Rover and Ingenuity’s takeoff.
Overall, it’s clear to see that the landing of Perseverance wasn’t just another routine orbiter sent to Mars, but rather is a much more complex piece of technology capable of finally telling us if Mars has the potential for life outside of Earth. Keep an eye out in the news for future discoveries from this Mars mission; the data from this journey may just shift your perspective on our world and space itself.
By Kate Porter
Chang, K. (2021, February). NASA’s Perseverance Rover Lands on Mars to Renew Search for Extinct Life. The New York Times.
Cookson, Clive. “ET hunt gets new electronic boost.” The Times 61450, (1983): 2. http://gdc.galegroup.com/gdc/artemis/NewspapersDetailsPage/NewspapersDetailsWind.
Davies, Paul. The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence. Boston: Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration . (n.d.). Chronology of Mars Exploration. NASA. https://history.nasa.gov/marschro.htm.
Shostak, Seth. “Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” In McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science & Technology, 10th ed., 786-788. Vol. 6. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2007. Gale Virtual Reference Library (accessed February 3, 2019). http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3057502312/GVRL?u-taco25438&sid GVRL&xid-50dea849.
Tipler, Frank J. “Extraterrestrial Intelligence: A Skeptical View of Radio Searches.” Science 219, no. 4581 (1983): 110-12. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1690085.