In 1971, a 24 year-old David Bowie sang a question to the world: Is there life on Mars? Over 40 years later scientists are preparing to answer that question. While intelligent life is less than plausible, complex life has to start somewhere, and scientists are coming ever-closer to finding out the exact conditions in which life can begin and where we might find that elsewhere in the solar system.
In a study of an enzyme-free, or lifeless, environment designed to replicate the ancient oceans of Earth, researchers from the University of Cambridge found something incredible upon adding water and sugars with phosphoric acid.
“Without so much as a single enzyme in the sight,” Dr. Markus Ralser explains about , “29 distinct, basic biologic reactions took place, including those forming…the backbone of RNA.”
Chemical reactions resembling a metabolism occurred without using any biological elements. The experiment was done in an environment without oxygen, based on research done by Arizona State University’s Ariel Anbar, who hypothesized that life started before the oceans became oxygenated. This is believed to be how life originated on our planet. These metabolic reactions could have very, very slowly evolved into simple organisms. Could these processes occur in similar environments found on other planets? New miniature spacecrafts will bring us closer than ever to knowing the answer.
The LunaH-Map, a small box-shaped satellite also developed by Arizona State University, will be heading to the moon in 2018 to orbit around its poles in search of hydrogen, which may indicate the presence of water. If water is found, the moon may become a pitstop for further space travel, as “ice can be used for rocket fuel or to support a human push out into the solar system.” It would also make the transport of water to the moon unnecessary.
Mini-satellites like LunaH-Map, known as CubeSats, have been used to orbit Earth before, but never before have they been designed to “propel [themselves] across the void of space and make course corrections.” Lunah-Map’s unique technology, if successful, will be borrowed for a CubeSat mission to Mars called MarCO, or Mars Cube One. The ability to search for water on Mars is huge. Not only could water make Mars yet another pitstop for travel throughout the solar system, or even the location of the first human colony on another planet, but it could contribute to metabolic reactions similar to those observed by Ralser’s team.
While water on the red planet wouldn’t necessarily mean Bowie’s Spiders from Mars live there, or that anyone will be able to pack and move there anytime soon, it could potentially give us a good idea of what to expect on other planets as well as make us reconsider what we currently know about biology. Living organisms, however basic, have never been found outside of our home planet, but with these recent advances, and many more to come, it seems to be only a matter of time.