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Machines Like Us

Life on Mars: just add carbon and stir

Monday, 28 May 2012
by Marion Anderson

The building blocks of life have been discovered on Mars … in Martian meteorites that fell to Earth.

Let me rephrase that: according to a paper by published in Science Express on Friday, meteorites from Mars have been found to contain the basic ingredients for life as we know it.

This is amazingly, mind-bogglingly awesome!

The last time a headline like this made the front pages of most of the papers was back in 1996, when evidence of organic life and “fossils” had been found in a meteorite that had fallen to Earth from Mars.

But a few years later, after a lot more research, the results fell into dispute. In the words of American astronomer Carl Sagan, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” and the evidence wasn’t quite enough to convince all the scientists doing research on the evolution of life on Earth (or Mars).

Now some commentators are saying that the new data, published by a team of international researchers, proves the 1996 meteorite didn’t contain evidence of life. Others say that it proves that life could have existed on Mars in the past.

So, who is right? Does this new data mean there is life on Mars today? Have they proved that life existed on Mars in the past?

No, and no. What has been found is that many samples of Martian rock contain carbon that has not been made by life. But this new research means there is a better chance of life having evolved on Mars.

Some time later this year, or early next, you may be reading a newspaper headline stating life has been found on Mars. This will also be awesome!

Headlines such as these would come from the results of a new Mars rover named “Curiosity” – a scientific laboratory on wheels, which will land on Mars on August 5.