Earthlings on Mars

If scientists eventually discover strange new life forms on Mars, then Bernie Bates is going to be out about $4 to members of the Tacoma Astronomical Society. Bates, professor of astronomy at the University of Puget Sound, made a friendly wager with those who attended his talk at the club’s meeting earlier this month. He has a shiny new dime that says we will find life on Mars and that it will look awfully familiar.

Bates expects we will have a definitive resolution to the wager by around 2026. NASA recently announced a Mars mission for 2020, and the ESA and Russia are working on a slightly earlier mission, both with an eye toward eventually returning samples of Mars rock and soil for analysis.

Bernie Bates

Bernie Bates, astronomy instructor at the University of Puget Sound, spoke about Mars exploration at the August meeting of the Tacoma Astronomical Society.

“They’re going to get samples back, they’re going to find microbes in it, and they’re going to pull the microbes apart,” Bates says. “The microbes are going to have DNA that we recognize, nucleotides that we recognize.”

“Life will be there on Mars,” Bates bets, “and it will be Earth life.”

The reason: Earth and Mars have been exchanging rocks for billions of years. “Mars is so close to us that there’s been cross-contamination between the two planets.”

Bates is confident he won’t have to pay off on the 10-cent wager about this multi-billion dollar question. But he isn’t offering odds or compound interest!

Recent science has been pretty conclusive about the past habitability of Mars, according to Bates, though Mars hasn’t been very Earth-like for the last two or three billion years.

“All of the geology questions in a sense have been answered,” he says. “We’ve got every potential smoking gun you can ask for for life on Mars.”

He expects we will find it.

“If Mars had life on it then it’s still there, someplace, probably underground,” Bates says, noting that microbial life is tough and adaptable. “The planet itself never did anything so hostile so quickly that it could wipe it out.”

Exploration of Mars was bumped up a notch or two with the arrival there of Curiosity a year ago, Bates says. A big reason is its power source, a radioisotope thermoelectric generator that will keep the rover operable for many years.

“They know they have enough time to do the science, they don’t have to rush, they can actually think through what they’re doing,” Bates says.

Time means flexibility. Bates notes that Curiosity spent the better part of its first year on an unplanned detour to explore the geology of an area named Glenelg near its Martian landing site.

“The spacecraft has an almost unlimited lifetime, they trust it, and they can do something like that” without jeopardizing the primary mission, Bates says.

Finding life on another planet, even if it actually originated here on Earth, wouldn’t exactly be ho-hum. Bates believes, though, that the greater discovery will come from a bit further out than Mars.

“If you want to find what the real search is for in the solar system, what they call second genesis, a different type of life, the Jovian people are the people to put your money on,” Bates says.

Money is a key factor. Interplanetary exploration costs a lot, and there’s not much to go around. The bulk of it is being invested in Mars these days, but Bates and many astrobiologists are rooting for more funding for those who want to probe the systems of Jupiter or Saturn. Both gas giant planets have moons that have interesting possibilities for life.

“Europa, Enceladus, that’s where the answers are,” Bates says.

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