Robots Alone Probably Won’t Find Life on Mars

When the Senate subcommittee asked for reasons why they should send crewed missions to Mars. Ellen Stofan, NASA’s former chief scientist who now leads the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, stated that if we genuinely want to discover and understand any possible traces of ancient life on the Red Planet, robots can’t do it alone — humans will need to be on the ground.

An interesting development for Asgardia who intends to set up habitable platforms in low-Earth orbit and have human colonies comfortably living in space.

Stofan elaborated that although she believes that life did evolve on Mars, she doesn’t think it got very complicated. She believes that if we were to find life, it would be in the form of fossil microbes. Thus, she told the Senate subcommittee that those fossils would be incredibly difficult to find.

Since the fossils could be so tricky to spot humans would need to be on the Red Planet breaking open a lot of rocks to try actually to find evidence of past life, explained Stofan. Adding that finding one sample is not good enough; we need multiple samples to understand the diversity.

Ever since the Viking Missions in the 1970s, NASA has not sent any more robots built to spot traces of life on Mars. But with the soonest possible human Mars mission still 15 years away, is there any hope that robots could discover ancient Martian life before humans get there?

Regardless if life-hunters are robotic or human, they’ll be guided by the knowledge we have gained on Earth. Unfortunately, finding ancient microbial life is already pretty tricky on our planet. Both on Earth and in space scientists are facing some grim odds when it comes to seeking out traces of Martian organisms that may have lived billions of years ago.

Sean McMahon, an astrobiologist at the University of Edinburgh in the U.K., told that most things never fossilize only a few things get preserved and usually those things have hard parts.

However, the good news is that on Mars there are no phenomena like plate tectonics and volcanism continually destroying the geological record, so if there was life on the Red Planet billions of years ago, it’s more likely that traces would remain.

Furthermore, there have been eight successful landers and rovers on Mars over the years, with the most famous current resident being NASA’s Curiosity rover. Except that mission was carefully designed to look for places where life might once have thrived — but not to look for traces of that life.

And it has accomplished that mission, detecting mudstones in Gale Crater as particularly promising and finding ancient organic molecules not necessarily created by life.
Robots are far from perfect, but they are much more robust than humans. For example, Ken Farley, an astrobiologist at the California Institute of Technology and the principal investigator for NASA’s next Mars rover, told, that robots could land closer to the rocks scientists want to look at.

Since Martian life most likely never expanded past microbial form, the features scientists are looking for are going to fit within a robot’s view. But there are some ways humans still outpace robots, especially when it comes to looking at the bigger picture of life on Mars.

Stofan also explained to the senators that if biologists, geologists and chemists land on Mars, they could do more than identify evidence of past life on Mars. They could also examine its variation, complexity and relationship to life on Earth much more effectively than our robotic counterparts.

What’s more, Frances Westall, an astrobiologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in France said that she doesn’t think robots will ever match human geologists for their knowledge and instincts in the field or their productivity. She said that a human geologist could do in a week what the Mars rovers can do in a year.

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