In an article in the journal Nature Astronomy, Dr. Nathalie Cabrol, director of the Carl Sagan Research Center at the SETI Institute, challenges the scientific community’s assumptions about the possibility of modern life on Mars.
While the Perseverance rover is traveling in search of signs of extraterrestrial life in the 3.7 billion year old Jezero crater, Dr. Cabrol theorizes that not only could life be present on Mars today, but it could also be very more widespread and accessible than previously thought.
Their findings are based on years of exploration of the first Mars analogs in extreme environments in the Chilean highlands and the Andes funded by NASA’s Institute of Astrobiology.
It is essential, he argues, that we consider microbial habitability on Mars through the lens of a 4 billion-year environmental continuum rather than through frozen environmental snapshots as we usually do.
It’s also critical to remember that, by all Earth standards, Mars became an extreme environment very early on.
In extreme environments, while water is an essential condition, it is far from sufficient.
What matters most, says Dr. Cabrol, is how extreme environmental factors like a thin atmosphere, ultraviolet radiation, salinity, aridity, temperature fluctuations and many more interact with each other, not just water.
“You can walk in the same landscape for miles and find nothing,” explains Dr. Cabrol.
“So maybe because the slope changes by a fraction of a degree, the texture or mineralogy of the soil is different because there is more protection against UV rays, suddenly life is here.”
“What matters in extreme worlds to find life is to understand the patterns resulting from these interactions. Following the water is good. Following the patterns is better. “
This interaction unlocks the distribution and abundance of life in those landscapes.
That doesn’t necessarily make it easier to find, as the latest harbors for microbes in extreme environments can be at the micro- or nanoscale within the cracks of the crystals.
On the other hand, observations made on terrestrial analogs suggest that these interactions considerably expand the potential territory for modern life on Mars and could bring it closer to the surface than was long theorized.
If Mars still harbors life today, which Dr. Cabrol believes to find it we must take the approach of Mars as a biosphere.
Before Noah’s transition, 3.7 or 3.5 billion years ago, rivers, oceans, wind, dust storms would have carried him to all parts of the planet.
“Importantly, dispersal mechanisms still exist today and connect the deep interior to the subsurface,” says Dr. Cabrol.
But a biosphere cannot function without an engine. The director of the Carl Sagan Research Center proposes that the engine to sustain modern life on Mars still exists, that it is more than 4 billion years old and that today it has been lost from sight, underground.
If this is correct, these observations may modify our definition of what we call “Special Regions” to include the interaction of extreme environmental factors as a critical element.
One that potentially expands its distribution substantially and could make us rethink how to approach them.
The problem here is that we do not yet have global environmental data at a scale and resolution that are important for understanding modern microbial habitability on Mars.
As human exploration gives us a deadline to recover pristine samples, Dr. Cabrol suggests options regarding the search for existing life.
Including the kinds of missions that could meet critical goals for astrobiology, human exploration, and planetary protection.
And if so, and life is present on the red planet, then many of the NASA images showing strange creatures could be real.
Then, the Martian colonists will be forced to deal with extraterrestrial beings, which could have evolved in caves. What do you think?