A recent article in the Scientific American journal has drawn attention to an out-of-this-world possibility: We are not alone — maybe.
The piece by Gilbert Levin, a former NASA scientist involved in the life detection experiment on the Viking mission to Mars in 1976, says he is convinced that we found evidence of life then and that data collected since has helped to shore up his conviction.
The original experiment found evidence of organic matter, but the conclusion couldn’t be confirmed by subsequent experiments. Subsequent missions to the Red Planet, however, have found organic molecules and evidence of water, providing additional hints at the possibility of life.
In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli thought he spotted channels — “canali” — on Mars. The word was translated into “canals” in English, and the rush to find life on Mars took off.
People have been fascinated with the idea of Martian life ever since, whether that took the form of excitement, curiosity, amusement or sometimes terror.
Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian fantasies, Ray Bradbury’s "Mars Is Heaven!", little green men, Warner Bros.' Marvin the Martian, D.C. comics' J’onn J’onzz the Martian Manhunter, “My Favorite Martian” in the 1960s — the products of our imaginations have been much more abundant than the evidence so far.
But a life detection experiment will be included on NASA's Mars 2020 rover set to land on the planet in February 2021. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has acknowledged the possibility that microbial life might be found.
Finding life beyond Earth that didn’t start here would change fundamentally our understanding of biology. Life would no longer be a one-time, one-place thing. Once confirmed on one other planet, it becomes very likely to be on many planets. Life would, in effect, become a universal thing.
The development of life would go from a unique occurrence on a lone rocky planet to something that likely happened across the cosmos. Though it’s sometimes difficult to prove that intelligent life exists here on Earth, establishing that life had arisen on another planet would make it significantly more probable that intelligent life exists elsewhere.
The 1897 H.G. Wells story “War of the Worlds” became the Orson Welles Halloween 1938 radio broadcast that spooked many listeners. Have no fear, that will not come to pass, but we might find microbial life or a fossil version of it on the next Mars mission. And that will be huge.