Skip to main content
Close menu
Connect logo
Is There Life on Mars?

Is There Life on Mars?

In prehistoric times, humans wondered what lay beyond the next mountain. Ever since, we've pushed ourselves to explore new frontiers, gain more knowledge and unearth greater riches. With little left on Earth untouched by human hand, we turn our insatiable sense of wonder to the sky. As the race to planet Mars intensifies, we meet a Nottingham graduate whose job it is to protect the planet and ask University philosophers: is this space exploration for the greater good? Or is it just a race to put our flag in the sand and claim the prize? 

Since Neil Armstrong famously took that step, we've spent half a century improving our ability to survive in space. And now we're ready for the next giant leap, expanding human presence into deep space. Everyone's headed for Mars. This summer, scientists revealed a liquid water lake on Mars and NASA launched its InSight Lander which is due to touch down at the Elysium Planitia in November. In two years' time, NASA's Mars 2020 mission will study aspects of the geologic and climatic history of the Red Planet resulting, perhaps, in a definitive answer to the age-old question – is there life on Mars and was it ever there before? 

Science fiction would have us believe Martian life will either resemble grey humanoids, the three-eyed Little Green Men of Toy Story or something crawling out of actor John Hurt's stomach. But the reality is likely to be the rather less dramatic discovery of microbes fished out of a primordial soup.

Emily Seto, NASA scientistAs a NASA scientist and microbiologist Emily Seto (Clinical Microbiology, 2016) is a Nottingham graduate at the forefront of the preparations to ensure that if we do find life on Mars, we can actually prove it. 

"I'm a Planetary Protection Engineer. We aim to prevent the forward and backward contamination of spacecraft as they travel to different planets. We keep an archive of novel microbes as evidence so that when something is identified on another planet, we know that it's unique and hasn't come about through our contamination. 

"Spacecrafts at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where I work in California, are housed in a clean room which is as sterile as we can make it. Every time an engineer adds a piece of hardware to the spacecraft, I have to ensure that every piece is absolutely clean. We use isopropyl alcohol, UV radiation, and vaporised hydrogen peroxide, yet there are microbes which can survive this harsh process, which I find quite incredible.

"Day to day, I focus on microbe sampling, identification and archiving. One of my big projects is characterising novel organisms. A lot of the novel microbes we discover from the clean room don't have a characterisation, which means we get to name our own microbe and put it into the system. 

"My interest in microbiology started when I was young. When I was four I contracted E Coli 0157, the most pathogenic strain, from a dodgy burger. I suffered kidney failure and spent a year in the Children's Hospital of Los Angeles, who saved my life. This illness sparked a fire in me to learn, and my masters in clinical microbiology at Nottingham provided such a positive environment in which to explore topics like antibiotic resistance and microbes. It changed my horizons. 

"I'm now really passionate about astrobiology. These are extreme microbes that are surviving and it's important that we know so much more about them. There aren't enough specialists in this field – we need more students and post-docs to study them. I spend a lot of time encouraging young people to think about the bigger picture but I don't think people appreciate just how important this field is going to be in the future. 

"We need more inspirational leaders. I was lucky enough to meet NASA astronaut and microbiologist Kate Rubins, who was the first scientist to sequence bacteria in DNA in space. I was fan-drooling over her because she was my inspiration and I'd love to follow in her footsteps. I'd volunteer in a heartbeat to go to Mars and, as a microbiologist, I'd give anything to be the first to sample what is found. 

"Over the next 20 years, a big fleet of spacecraft from many different countries will land on or orbit Mars. But I hope it will be for the good of science and humankind. Each mission is a collaboration carrying instruments contributed by many different nations. What's important is how we can all contribute to science to fill the void in our knowledge. I hope we can find a way to do that together."    

A Moral Dimension

Deep space exploration carries with it moral and ethical responsibilities. Dr Neil Sinclair and Jon Robson of the Department of Philosophy offer their perspective. 

Dr Neil Sinclair 

"There's an assumption that humans are somehow 'outside of nature' and that as soon as we put a foot on a planet, we somehow taint it. Yet we're just like anything else in nature, we came through the same evolutionary processes. All ecosystems experience change. A planet like Mars presents us with an opportunity to display our approach to the non-human world. Do we view it as resource for current or future humans, do we respect it on its own terms, do we show humility towards it or do we try and dominate it. Antarctica is a model that seems to work.

"We can't be sure that we'll be harming anything on Mars but it doesn't reflect well on us if we just dive in there and plunder resources. If we show our values in the way we approach everything, whether it's sentient or not, then perhaps we're less likely to be perceived as aggressive and exploitative. The mechanics of space travel gives us more time to think about those mistakes and take a different approach."  

Jon Robson 

"Historically, we've explored and then thought about ethical and moral considerations later. We'd tended towards the 'let's see what we can get out of this and then worry later whether our actions were right or wrong.'

"Moral status is an important consideration. How complex would an alien have to be for us to care about it intrinsically? There's a huge spectrum covering single cell organisms to complex aliens with advanced space ships. 

"This also brings into the question what is natural? If we think there is something important about the natural state of a planet, to what extent do we interfere? Visiting Mars in the first place involves some kind of interference. Leaving footprints and a flag on the Moon is interference in one sense but it doesn't appear to be a large-scale change of the environment. Does that make it ok?" 



Simon Harvey
Words: Simon Harvey, Connect Staff Writer

One of life's story tellers. Lover of people and their narratives. Wonderer and wanderer. Journalist for more than 30 years and eternal defender of the written word.