Life on Mars

Life on Mars
An artist's impression of what Mars' surface and atmosphere may look like if Mars were terraformed.

Scientists have long speculated about the possibility of life on Mars owing to the planet's proximity and similarity to Earth. Fictional Martians have been a recurring feature of popular entertainment of the 20th and 21st centuries, but it remains an open question whether life currently exists on Mars, or has existed there in the past.


Early speculation

Historical map of Mars from Giovanni Schiaparelli.
Mars canals, as seen by astronomer P. Lowell, 1898.

Mars' polar ice caps were observed as early as the mid-17th century, and they were first proven to grow and shrink alternately, in the summer and winter of each hemisphere, by William Herschel in the latter part of the 18th century. By the mid-19th century, astronomers knew that Mars had certain other similarities to Earth, for example that the length of a day on Mars was almost the same as a day on Earth. They also knew that its axial tilt was similar to Earth's, which meant it experienced seasons just as Earth does - but of nearly double the length owing to its much longer year. These observations led to the increase in speculation that the darker albedo features were water, and brighter ones were land. It was therefore natural to suppose that Mars may be inhabited by some form of life.

In 1854, William Whewell, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, who popularized the word scientist, theorized that Mars had seas, land and possibly life forms. Speculation about life on Mars exploded in the late 19th century, following telescopic observation by some observers of apparent Martian canals — which were however soon found to be optical illusions. Despite this, in 1895, American astronomer Percival Lowell published his book Mars, followed by Mars and its Canals in 1906, proposing that the canals were the work of a long-gone civilization.[1] This idea led British writer H. G. Wells to write The War of the Worlds in 1897, telling of an invasion by aliens from Mars who were fleeing the planet’s desiccation.

Spectroscopic analysis of Mars' atmosphere began in earnest in 1894, when U.S. astronomer William Wallace Campbell showed that neither water nor oxygen were present in the Martian atmosphere.[2] By 1909 better telescopes and the best perihelic opposition of Mars since 1877 conclusively put an end to the canal theory.


Mariner 4

Mariner Crater, as seen by Mariner 4 in 1965. Pictures like this suggested that Mars is too dry for any kind of life.
Streamlined Islands seen by Viking orbiter showed that large floods occurred on Mars. Image is located in Lunae Palus quadrangle.

Mariner 4 probe performed the first successful flyby of the planet Mars, returning the first pictures of the Martian surface in 1965. The photographs showed an arid Mars without rivers, oceans or any signs of life. Further, it revealed that the surface (at least the parts that it photographed) was covered in craters, indicating a lack of plate tectonics and weathering of any kind for the last 4 billion years. The probe also found that Mars has no global magnetic field that would protect the planet from potentially life-threatening cosmic rays. The probe was able to calculate the atmospheric pressure on the planet to be about 0.6 kPa (compared to Earth's 101.3 kPa), meaning that liquid water could not exist on the planet's surface.[2] After Mariner 4, the search for life on Mars changed to a search for bacteria-like living organisms rather than for multicellular organisms, as the environment was clearly too harsh for these.

Viking orbiters

Liquid water is necessary for known life and metabolism, so if water was present on Mars, the chances of it having supported life may have been determinant. The Viking orbiters found evidence of possible river valleys in many areas, erosion and, in the southern hemisphere, branched streams.[3][4][5]

Carl Sagan poses next to a replica of the Viking landers.

Viking experiments

The primary mission of the Viking probes of the mid-1970s was to carry out experiments designed to detect microorganisms in Martian soil because the favorable conditions for the evolution of multicellular organisms ceased some four billion years ago on Mars.[6] The tests were formulated to look for microbial life similar to that found on Earth. Of the four experiments, only the Labeled Release (LR) experiment returned a positive result, showing increased 14CO2 production on first exposure of soil to water and nutrients. All scientists agree on two points from the Viking missions: that radiolabeled 14CO2 was evolved in the Labeled Release experiment, and that the GC-MS detected no organic molecules. However, there are vastly different interpretations of what those results imply.

The image taken by Viking probes resembling a human face caused many to speculate that it was the work of an extraterrestrial civilization.

One of the designers of the Labeled Release experiment, Gilbert Levin, believes his results are a definitive diagnostic for life on Mars.[2] However, this result is disputed by many scientists, who argue that superoxidant chemicals in the soil could have produced this effect without life being present. An almost general consensus discarded the Labeled Release data as evidence of life, because the gas chromatograph & mass spectrometer, designed to identify natural organic matter, did not detect organic molecules.[7] The results of the Viking mission concerning life are considered by the general expert community, at best, as inconclusive.[2][8]

In 2007, during a Seminar of the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution (Washington, D.C., USA), Gilbert Levin's investigation was assessed once more.[7] Levin maintains that his original data were correct, as the positive and negative control experiments were in order.

Ronald Paepe, an edaphologist (soil scientist), communicated to the European Geosciences Union Congress that the discovery of the recent detection of phyllosilicate clays on Mars may indicate pedogenesis, or soil development processes, extended over the entire surface of Mars.[9] Paepe's interpretation views most of Mars surface as active soil, colored red by eons of widespread wearing by water, vegetation and microbial activity.[9]

A research team from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies headed by Rafael Navarro-González, concluded that the equipment (TV-GC-MS) used by the Viking program to search for organic molecules, may not be sensitive enough to detect low levels of organics.[10] Because of the simplicity of sample handling, TV–GC–MS is still considered the standard method for organic detection on future Mars missions, Navarro-González suggests that the design of future organic instruments for Mars should include other methods of detection.

Gillevinia straata

The claim for life on Mars, in the form of Gillevinia straata, is based on old data reinterpreted as sufficient evidence of life, mainly by professors Gilbert Levin,[7] Rafael Navarro-González[10] and Ronalds Paepe.[9] The evidence supporting the existence of Gillevinia straata microorganisms relies on the data collected by the two Mars Viking landers that searched for biosignatures of life, but the analytical results were, officially, inconclusive.[2]

In 2006, Mario Crocco, a neurobiologist at the Neuropsychiatric Hospital Borda in Buenos Aires, Argentina, proposed the creation of a new nomenclatural rank that classified the Viking landers' results as 'metabolic' and therefore belonging to a form of life. Crocco proposed to create new biological ranking categories (taxa), in the new kingdom system of life, in order to be able to accommodate the genus of Martian microorganisms. Crocco proposed the following taxonomical entry:[11]

  • Organic life system: Solaria
  • Biosphere: Marciana
  • Kingdom: Jakobia (named after neurobiologist Christfried Jakob)
  • Genus et species: Gillevinia straata

As a result, the hypothetical Gillevinia straata would not be a bacterium (which rather is a terrestrial taxon) but a member of the kingdom 'Jakobia' in the biosphere 'Marciana' of the 'Solaria' system. The intended effect of the new nomenclature was to reverse the burden of proof concerning the life issue, but the taxonomy proposed by Crocco has not been accepted by the scientific community and is considered a single nomen nudum. Further, no Mars mission has found traces of biomolecules.

An artist's concept of the Phoenix spacecraft

Phoenix lander, 2008

The Phoenix mission landed a robotic spacecraft in the polar region of Mars on May 25, 2008 and it operated until November 10, 2008. One of the mission's two primary objectives was to search for a "habitable zone" in the Martian regolith where microbial life could exist, the other main goal being to study the geological history of water on Mars. The lander has a 2.5 meter robotic arm that was capable of digging shallow trenches in the regolith. There was an electrochemistry experiment which analysed the ions in the regolith and the amount and type of antioxidants on Mars. The Viking program data indicate that oxidants on Mars may vary with latitude, noting that Viking 2 saw fewer oxidants than Viking 1 in its more northerly position. Phoenix landed further north still.[12] Phoenix's preliminary data revealed that Mars soil contains perchlorate, and thus may not be as life-friendly as thought earlier.[13][14][15] The pH and salinity level were viewed as benign from the standpoint of biology. The analysers also indicated the presence of bound water and CO2.[16]

Future missions

  • Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), a NASA project planned for launch in November 2011, will contain instruments and experiments designed to look for past or present conditions relevant to biological activity. The MSL is scheduled to land on Mars at Gale Crater in August 2012.[17][18][19]
  • ExoMars is a European-led multi-spacecraft programme currently under development by the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA for launch in 2016 and 2018.[20] Its primary scientific mission will be to search for possible biosignatures on Mars, past or present. Two rovers with a 2 m core drill each will be used to sample various depths beneath the surface where liquid water may be found and where microorganisms might survive cosmic radiation.[21][22]
  • Mars Sample Return Mission — The best life detection experiment proposed is the examination on Earth of a soil sample from Mars. However, the difficulty of providing and maintaining life support over the months of transit from Mars to Earth remains to be solved. Providing for still unknown environmental and nutritional requirements is daunting. Should dead organisms be found in a sample, it would be difficult to conclude that those organisms were alive when obtained.


NASA maintains a catalog of 34 Mars meteorites.[23] These assets are highly valuable since they are the only physical samples available of Mars. Studies conducted by NASA's Johnson Space Center show that at least three of the meteorites contain potential evidence of past life on Mars, in the form of microscopic structures resembling fossilized bacteria (so-called biomorphs). Although the scientific evidence collected is reliable, its interpretation varies. To date, none of the original lines of scientific evidence for the hypothesis that the biomorphs are of exobiological origin (the so-called biogenic hypothesis) have been either discredited or positively ascribed to non-biological explanations.[24]

Over the past few decades, seven criteria have been established for the recognition of past life within terrestrial geologic samples. Those criteria are:[24]

  1. Is the geologic context of the sample compatible with past life?
  2. Is the age of the sample and its stratigraphic location compatible with possible life?
  3. Does the sample contain evidence of cellular morphology and colonies?
  4. Is there any evidence of biominerals showing chemical or mineral disequilibria?
  5. Is there any evidence of stable isotope patterns unique to biology?
  6. Are there any organic biomarkers present?
  7. Are the features indigenous to the sample?

For general acceptance of past life in a geologic sample, essentially most or all of these criteria must be met. All seven criteria have not yet been met for any of the Martian samples, but continued investigations are in progress.[24]

As of 2010, reexaminations of the biomorphs found in the three Martian meteorites are underway with more advanced analytical instruments than previously available. The scientists conducting the study at Johnson Space Center believed that before the end of the year they would find in the meteorites definitive evidence for past life on Mars.[25]

ALH84001 meteorite

An electron microscope reveals bacteria-like structures in meteorite fragment ALH84001

The ALH84001 meteorite was found on December 1984 on Antarctica, by members of the ANSMET project; the meteorite weighs 1.93 kilograms (4.3 lb).[26] The sample was ejected from Mars about 17 million years ago and spent 11,000 years in or on the Antarctic ice sheets. Composition analysis by NASA revealed a kind of magnetite that on Earth, is only found in association with certain microorganisms.[24] Then, in August 2002, another NASA team led by Thomas-Keptra published a study indicating that 25% of the magnetite in ALH 84001 occurs as small, uniform-sized crystals that, on Earth, is associated only with biologic activity, and that the remainder of the material appears to be normal inorganic magnetite. The extraction technique did not permit determination as to whether the possibly biological magnetite was organized into chains as would be expected. The meteorite displays indication of relatively low temperature secondary mineralization by water and show evidence of preterrestrial aqueous alteration. Evidence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) have been identified with the levels increasing away from the surface.

Some structures resembling the mineralized casts of terrestrial bacteria and their appendages (fibrils) or by-products (extracellular polymeric substances) occur in the rims of carbonate globules and preterrestrial aqueous alteration regions.[27][28] The size and shape of the objects is consistent with Earthly fossilized nanobacteria, but the existence of nanobacteria itself is controversial.

In November 2009, NASA scientists said that a recent, more detailed analysis showed that the meteorite "contains strong evidence that life may have existed on ancient Mars".[29]

Nakhla meteorite

Nakhla Meteorite

The Nakhla meteorite fell on Earth on June 28, 1911 on the locality of Nakhla, Alexandria, Egypt.[30][31]

In 1998, a team from NASA's Johnson Space Center obtained a small sample for analysis. Researchers found preterrestrial aqueous alteration phases and objects[32] of the size and shape consistent with Earthly fossilized nanobacteria, but the existence of nanobacteria itself is controversial. Analysis with gas chromatography and mass spectrometry (GC-MS) studied its high molecular weight polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in 2000, and NASA scientists concluded that as much as 75% of the organic matter in Nakhla "may not be recent terrestrial contamination".[24][33]

This caused additional interest in this meteorite, so on 2006, NASA managed to obtain an additional and larger sample from the London Natural History Museum. On this second sample, a large dendritic carbon content was observed. When the results and evidence were published on 2006, some independent researchers claimed that the carbon deposits are of biologic origin. However, it was remarked that since carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the Universe, finding it in curious patterns is not indicative or suggestive of biological origin.[34][35]

Shergotty meteorite

The Shergotty meteorite, a 4 kg Martian meteorite, fell on Earth on Shergotty, India on August 25, 1865 and was retrieved by witnesses almost immediately.[36] This meteorite is relatively young, calculated to have been formed on Mars only 165 million years ago from volcanic origin. It is composed mostly of pyroxene and thought to have undergone preterrestrial aqueous alteration for several centuries. Certain features in its interior suggest to be remnants of biofilm and their associated microbial communities.[24] Work is in progress on searching for magnetites within alteration phases.

Liquid water

A series of artist's conceptions of hypothetical past water coverage on Mars.

No Mars probe since Viking has tested the Martian regolith specifically for metabolism which is the ultimate sign of current life. NASA's recent missions have focused on another question: whether Mars held lakes or oceans of liquid water on its surface in the ancient past. Scientists have found hematite, a mineral that forms in the presence of water. Thus, the mission of the Mars Exploration Rovers of 2004 was not to look for present or past life, but for evidence of liquid water on the surface of Mars in the planet's ancient past.

Liquid water, necessary for life and for metabolism, cannot exist on the surface of Mars under its present low atmospheric pressure and temperature, except at the lowest shaded elevations for short periods[37][38] and liquid water does not appear at the surface itself.[39]

In June 2000, evidence for water currently under the surface of Mars was discovered in the form of flood-like gullies.[40] Deep subsurface water deposits near the planet's liquid core might form a present-day habitat for life. However, in March 2006, astronomers announced the discovery of similar gullies on the Moon,[41] which is believed never to have had liquid water on its surface. The astronomers suggest that the gullies could be the result of micrometeorite impacts.

In March 2004, NASA announced that its rover Opportunity had discovered evidence that Mars was, in the ancient past, a wet planet.[42] This had raised hopes that evidence of past life might be found on the planet today. ESA confirmed that the Mars Express orbiter had directly detected huge reserves of water ice at Mars' south pole in January 2004.[43]

On July 28, 2005, ESA announced that they had recorded photographic evidence of surface water ice near Mars' North pole.[44]

In December 2006, NASA showed images taken by the Mars Global Surveyor that suggested that water occasionally flows on the surface of Mars. The images did not actually show flowing water. Rather, they showed changes in craters and sediment deposits, providing the strongest evidence yet that water coursed through them as recently as several years ago, and is perhaps doing so even now. Some researchers were skeptical that liquid water was responsible for the surface feature changes seen by the spacecraft. They said other materials such as sand or dust can flow like a liquid and produce similar results.[45]

Recent analysis of Martian sandstones, using data obtained from orbital spectrometry, suggests that the waters that previously existed on the surface of Mars would have had too high a salinity to support most Earth-like life. Tosca et al. found that the Martian water in the locations they studied all had water activity, aw ≤ 0.78 to 0.86—a level fatal to most Terrestrial life.[46] Haloarchaea, however, are able to live in hypersaline solutions, up to the saturation point.[47]

The Phoenix Mars lander from NASA, which landed in the Mars Arctic plain in May 2008, confirmed the presence of frozen water near the surface. This was confirmed when bright material, exposed by the digging arm of the lander, was found to have vaporized and disappeared in 3 to 4 days. This has been attributed to sub-surface ice, exposed by the digging and sublimated on exposure to the atmosphere.[48]


Trace amounts of methane in the atmosphere of Mars were discovered in 2003 and verified in 2004.[49][50][51][52][53][54] As methane is an unstable gas, its presence indicates that there must be an active source on the planet in order to keep such levels in the atmosphere. It is estimated that Mars must produce 270 ton/year of methane,[55][56] but asteroid impacts account for only 0.8% of the total methane production. Although geologic sources of methane such as serpentinization are possible, the lack of current volcanism, hydrothermal activity or hotspots are not favorable for geologic methane. It has been suggested that the methane was produced by chemical reactions in meteorites, driven by the intense heat during entry through the atmosphere. However, research published in December 2009, ruled out this possibility.[57][58]

The existence of life in the form of microorganisms such as methanogens are among possible but as yet unproven sources. If microscopic Martian life is producing the methane, it likely resides far below the surface, where it is still warm enough for liquid water to exist.[59]

Since the 2003 discovery of methane in the atmosphere, some scientists have been designing models and in vitro experiments testing growth of methanogenic bacteria on simulated Martian soil, where all four methanogen strains tested produced substantial levels of methane, even in the presence of 1.0wt% perchlorate salt.[60] The results reported indicate that the perchlorates discovered by the Phoenix Lander would not rule out the possible presence of methanogens on Mars.[60][61]

A team led by Levin suggested that both phenomena—methane production and degradation—could be accounted for by an ecology of methane-producing and methane-consuming microorganisms.[61][62]


In February 2005, it was announced that the Planetary Fourier Spectrometer (PFS) on the European Space Agency's Mars Express Orbiter, detected traces of formaldehyde in the atmosphere of Mars. Vittorio Formisano, the director of the PFS, has speculated that the formaldehyde could be the byproduct of the oxidation of methane, and according to him, would provide evidence that Mars is either extremely geologically active, or harbouring colonies of microbial life.[63][64] NASA scientists consider the preliminary findings are well worth a follow-up, but have also rejected the claims of life.[65][66]


In May 2007, the Spirit rover disturbed a patch of ground with its inoperative wheel, uncovering an area extremely rich in silica (90%).[67] The feature is reminiscent of the effect of hot spring water or steam coming into contact with volcanic rocks. Scientists consider this as evidence of a past environment that may have been favorable for microbial life, and theorize that one possible origin for the silica may have been produced by the interaction of soil with acid vapors produced by volcanic activity in the presence of water. Another possible origin could have been from water in a hot spring environment.[68]

Based on Earth analogs, hydrothermal systems on Mars would be highly attractive for their potential for preserving organic and inorganic biosignatures.[69] For example, iron oxidizing bacteria are abundant in marine and terrestrial hydrothermal systems, where they often display distinctive cell morphologies and are commonly encrusted by minerals, especially bacteriogenic iron oxides and silica. Microfossils of iron oxidizing bacteria have been found in ancient Si-Fe deposits and iron oxidation may be an ancient and widespread metabolic pathway.[69] If possible, future rover missions will target extinct hydrothermal vent systems on Mars.

Geysers on Mars

Artist concept showing sand-laden jets erupt from geysers on Mars. (Published by NASA); artist: Ron Miller.
Close up of dark dune spots, likely created by cold geyser-like eruptions.

The seasonal frosting and defrosting of the southern ice cap results in the formation of spider-like radial channels carved on 1 meter thick ice by sunlight. Then, sublimed CO2 – and probably water –increase pressure in their interior producing geyser-like eruptions of cold fluids often mixed with dark basaltic sand or mud.[70][71][72][73] This process is rapid, observed happening in the space of a few days, weeks or months, a growth rate rather unusual in geology - especially for Mars.

A team of Hungarian scientists propose that the geysers' most visible features, dark dune spots and spider channels, may be colonies of photosynthetic Martian microorganisms, which over-winter beneath the ice cap, and as the sunlight returns to the pole during early spring, light penetrates the ice, the microorganisms photosynthesise and heat their immediate surroundings. A pocket of liquid water, which would normally evaporate instantly in the thin Martian atmosphere, is trapped around them by the overlying ice. As this ice layer thins, the microorganisms show through grey. When it has completely melted, they rapidly desiccate and turn black surrounded by a grey aureole.[74][75][76][77] The Hungarian scientists believe that even a complex sublimation process is insufficient to explain the formation and evolution of the dark dune spots in space and time.[78][79] Since their discovery, fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke promoted these formations as deserving of study from an astrobiological perspective.[80]

A multinational European team suggests that if liquid water is present in the spiders' channels during their annual defrost cycle, they might provide a niche where certain microscopic life forms could have retreated and adapted while sheltered from solar radiation.[81] A British team also considers the possibility that organic matter, microbes, or even simple plants might co-exist with these inorganic formations, especially if the mechanism includes liquid water and a geothermal energy source.[82] However, they also remark that the majority of geological structures may be accounted for without invoking any organic "life on Mars" hypothesis.[82]

Cosmic radiation

In 1965, the Mariner 4 probe discovered that Mars had no global magnetic field that would protect the planet from potentially life-threatening cosmic radiation and solar radiation; observations made in the late 1990s by the Mars Global Surveyor confirmed this discovery.[83] Scientists speculate that the lack of magnetic shielding helped the solar wind blow away much of Mars's atmosphere over the course of several billion years.[84]

After mapping cosmic radiation levels at various depths on Mars, researchers have concluded that any life within the first several meters of the planet's surface would be killed by lethal doses of cosmic radiation.[85] In 2007, it was calculated that DNA and RNA damage by cosmic radiation would limit life on Mars to depths greater than 7.5 metres below the planet's surface.[21] Therefore, the best potential locations for discovering life on Mars may be at subsurface environments that have not been studied yet.[86]

See also


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