By: April Carson
On February 18, NASA's Perseverance rover will parachute through thin Martian air, cementing a new era in red planet exploration. Landing on the Jezero Crater, which is located north of Mars' equator, will be no easy task. According to NASA, only about 40% of all missions sent to Mars have succeeded. If it does, Perseverance may revolutionize how we think about alien life. Because scientists believe Jezero, a 28-mile-wide impact crater that used to be a lake, is an excellent location to look for signs of ancient Martian microbial life, that's what they'll do.
Perseverance is a Mars lander that will collect and store Martian rock and soil samples, which will be returned to Earth after it lands. Because of the expense, this is known as a "sample-return mission," which is an uncommon type of space exploration effort. Once Martian dirt has been sent back to Earth in a decade, scientists will begin studying the material to determine if there was ever life on Mars.
Jezero was chosen as the landing site for Perseverance because it used to be a lake that existed 3.5 billion years ago, and scientists believe there's a good chance that microbial life may have once thrived there. Even if signs of ancient Martian life are found, it's still unclear whether or not this life is related to the life that exists on Earth.
Some researchers think that these samples may be able to address an even more complex question: did life on Mars evolve on Earth?
Despite the fact that the notion that life first arose on Mars and then spread to Earth seems far-fetched, many renowned scientists believe it is possible. The concept of life beginning somewhere else in space before moving to Earth has a name: Panspermia. It's the idea that life might exist elsewhere in the universe and be carried by asteroids and other space debris.
There are several examples that support the theory of panspermia. One is the fact that certain meteorites found on Earth contain organic compounds that could only have come from Mars. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that a significant portion of the water on Earth may have come from comets or asteroids striking our planet early in its history.
The theory that life on Earth began on Mars isn't widely accepted in the scientific community, but it appears to be catching on. And Gary Ruvkun, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, agrees that it "sound[s] obvious."
The evidence begins with how space debris moved about in the early solar system. We do have proof of an exchange of rocks from Mars to Earth, as previously stated. Martian meteorites have been discovered in Antarctica and all around the world, according to the International Meteorite Collectors Association (IMCA).
"You can connect them to Mars based on the gaseous inclusions they contain, which are sort of like the gases seen by the Viking spacecraft," Ruvkun said. In other words, tiny air bubbles trapped inside these rocks indicate that they were formed in Martian air." Consequently, there is interaction between Mars and Earth — more frequently in the reverse direction from Mars to Earth because it goes 'downhill,' toward Mars is 'uphill,' physically speaking," he adds.
However, for Ruvkun, a specialist in genomics, it's the timing of cellular life that he thinks makes a compelling argument that life on Earth originated from somewhere else — perhaps Mars or another planet versus Mars vis-a-vis another planet.
"In our genomes, you can kind of see the history," he added. "There's the RNA world that predated the DNA world; it's well-supported by all sorts of contemporary biological research; so, we know how evolution got us from there." Ruvkun said that our genes document the course of life and provide hints about its distant predecessors. "You can perceive a little bit of history in our genomes," he noted. "We know how evolution got us from there because we've seen it time and time again."
The understanding of LUCA — that is, the species from which all life on Earth evolved — has considerably improved thanks to advances in genomics. Scientists have a solid idea of what the single-celled ancestor of every existing thing (on Earth) looked like thanks to their study of the genetics of all organisms on our planet. They also have a sense of the schedule: Only 200 million years after the first appearance of liquid water, all current life forms emerged from a single-celled organism that lived 3.9 billion years ago. That's not long in the history of the universe.
The last common ancestor was so complicated, according to Ruvkun. That leaves two options, he explains. "Either evolution to full-fledged modern genomes is really simple," he says, "or the reason you see it happening so fast is that we just 'caught' life; it didn't truly start here." He adds, "I like the concept that we simply caught it and that's why it's progressing so quickly, but I'm an oddball."
If so, planetary scientist Erik Asphaug of the University of Arizona is also an oddball. The oldest rocks on Earth, which contain chemical evidence of carbon isotopes dating back almost 4 billion years and are about 3.4 billion years old, tell us that "life began to form on Earth as soon as it was possible for it to do so," according to Asphaug.
It may establish a significant legal precedent if that's the case. "Let's say you think life will flourish when a planet cools down to the point where it can form liquid water," Asphaug said. "But simply looking at our own solar system, which planet was most likely to be habitable first? Mars almost certainly."
This is due to the fact that Mars evolved before Earth, according to Asphaug. When Mars was cooling down early in its history, it would have had a "friendly" environment similar to what we have on Earth now.
"We don't know what the threshold is — whether it's a moon or some other factors that are unique to Earth, for example," Asphaug added. "But just in terms of which location had liquid water first, that would have been Mars."
The movement of substances between the two neighboring planets is compelling and convincing evidence. Indeed, as you go farther back in time, the greater the collisions of rocks between Mars and Earth become, Asphaug added. These collision events might have been huge "mountain-sized blocks of Mars" that were launched into space. Such massive asteroids might be a "smoking gun" for the origin of life, he said.
But not everyone agrees that all life started on Mars. Some scientists believe that Earth was the birthplace of life, and that it might have arrived here on a piece of debris from another planet.
"The jury is still out on which scenario is more likely," Asphaug said. "But the important thing is that we now have hard evidence that both are possible."
"When you crash into a planet, some amount of that mountain-sized mass will survive as debris on the surface," he added. "It's taken us a long time to figure out how to achieve what we call 'ballistic panspermia' — shooting one planet with a bullet, knocking off pieces and sending it to another solar system. But we believe it's possible; we think it happens; and the trajectory is more likely to go from Mars to Earth than from Earth to Mars."
According to Asphaug, the trip wouldn't be difficult for organisms to go through. They'd need only enough nutrients from the vehicle's remains to survive — and even that would not be a problem if there were an environment on the new planet that was suitable for them.
"Any early form of life would be resistant to what's going on at the tail end of planet formation," he added. "Any living being that is to exist has to get used to the continual barrage of impacts, not just because it will have to switch from planet to planet, but also because any surviving species must adapt."
In other words, early bacteria would have thrived in harsh environments and endured long hibernations.
According to Harvard lecturer Avi Loeb, one of the Martian rocks found on Earth, ALH 84001, "was not heated along its journey to more than 40 degrees Celsius and might have hosted life."
All three experts think that Perseverance may be able to lend credence to the theory of panspermia.
"If you were to go and look for signs of Martian life, which we hope to do with Perseverance rover and these other Mars excursions, I would be shocked if they weren't linked at the hip to terrestrial existence," Asphaug added.
Ruvkun said he wants to be one of the scientists who look for DNA if and when the Mars sample returns.
"Creating something from scratch on Mars is a highly complicated endeavor," he added.
What would this imply for human beings and our understanding of who we are and where we came from?
"We may all be Martians in that case," Loeb added. He quipped that the self-help book "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" may have been more accurate than we realize.
Or, as Ruvkun suspects, we're from a different star system and life is merely traveling across the cosmos.
"To me, the notion that it all began on Earth, and every solar system has its own little development of life, and they're all autonomous - it just seems really stupid," Ruvkun said. "The pandemic is a long, drawn-out discussion," he continued. "It's so much more explanatory to say 'no, it's spreading across the universe and we caught it too,' rather than having a conversation that goes nowhere."
This theory may explain the Fermi Paradox, which is the question of why we have not seen any signs of extraterrestrial life despite the high probability that it exists. If life began on Mars and then spread to Earth, that would mean that aliens are probably out there, but we haven't found them yet because they're too far away.
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April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
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