Starfield of Dreams

The Astrobiology Science Conference, 2004

The possibility of finding alien life is tantalizingly close. The recent discovery of ancient water features on the surface of Mars suggests life could have once existed right next door. Discoveries of planets in other solar systems hint at the potential for life in the far reaches of our galaxy, and scientists predict that within a decade we will discover Earth-like worlds orbiting distant stars.

Science Fiction Meets Science Fact. ‘What are the real possibilities, as well as the potential ramifications, of transforming Mars?’ Terraform debaters left to right, McKay, Pratt, Rummel, Shirley, Clarke, Robinson, Bear, Kastings
Credit: NASA

Over 700 scientists and engineers from around the world pondered these and other topics last week at the 2004 Astrobiology Science Conference at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. Discussions ranged from the smallest forms of life, including viruses, to the evolution of the most intelligent life we know of so far – human beings – to the possibility of contacting advanced aliens in other solar systems.

Many scientists said if we do find alien life, it will be a microbe. Earth is a microbial world, and nearly every biosphere on the planet teems with life in this miniscule form. Microbial life on Earth has evolved to live comfortably in extreme environments such as scalding heat, frigid cold, and acid solutions. Microbes even can survive the radiation and vacuum of space. Although microbes have not yet been discovered beyond Earth, the universe is infused with the organic building blocks of life.

Interior view of Biosphere 2’s glass ceiling and biomes.
Credit: Biosphere

While astrobiologists try to figure out where life could thrive beyond Earth, the origin of life on our own planet remains a mystery. Scientists discussed drilling projects that aim to reach subsurface life. These projects may not only help shed light on the origins of life here on Earth, but could indicate places where life may exist on Mars.

Cornell University’s Steve Squyres, lead scientist for the Mars rovers team, gave an overview of the progress made by the Spirit and Oppportunity rovers. Squyres seemed confident that the chemical signatures and features discovered by the rover Opportunity were indicative of a flow of salty water that once existed on the Martian surface, and he hinted at new evidence to come that could confirm that theory.

While the past remains a hot topic, the future also seems to be heating up. Much of the conference was devoted to the question, "Where are we going?" Scientists examined the impact of humans on Earth’s environment, and wondered at the fate of our world. The discovery of over 100 extrasolar planets so far are helping tailor the search for life elsewhere, and future missions like Kepler and the Terrestrial Planet Finder will further refine this search.

The future of Mars was the centerpiece of a debate on terraforming sponsored by Astrobiology Magazine and The Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. Moderated by Donna Shirley, the original leader of the team that built the Mars Pathfinder rover, the panelists debated the scientific and ethical implications of turning Mars into a world made habitable for humans. Science fiction authors Greg Bear and Kim Stanley Robinson joined in the discussion with astrobiologists Chris McKay, James Kasting, Lisa Pratt, and David Grinspoon, as well as NASA’s Planetary Protection officer John Rummel. Renowned science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke was linked to the debate by telephone from Sri Lanka.

Many of the debaters agreed that our first priority should be to search for life on Mars. If life is there, terraforming would have to wait until we could study that life and determine if it is related to life on Earth, or an entirely unique genesis. Because life can live deep underground, it could be several decades before we can say for sure if Mars is alive or dead.

Tracks in the Martian soil made by the Spirit rover. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/OSU/Cornell

If we do decide to terraform Mars, it will be a long, difficult and costly task. The panelists seemed divided on whether terraforming would be worthwhile. Chris McKay, for instance, advocated bringing life to the Red Planet, "to give Mars back its heartbeat." But others were more hesitant, wondering if we should alter an alien world when we have so many problems maintaining a healthy environment on our own planet.

Anyone still wrestling with their conscience could attend a session on ethics, where panelists discussed the many historical, religious, sociological and philosophical implications of human exploration. In the end, one’s position could be determined by a simple question: When you see photos of rover tracks made in the red soil of Mars, how does it make you feel? Do you see it as the defacement of a pristine planet? Or do you see it as the exciting fingerprint of man?

When asked if we should terraform Mars, Arthur C. Clarke responded, "Perhaps we should ask the Martians first."

Related Web Pages

NASA Ames Astrobiology
NASA Astrobiology Institute Astrobiology Conference
Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame
Breakpoint Media: For All Mankind
Conference Talks and Agenda
Genesis Project
Mars: Goldilocks’ Oasis?
Squyres, Martian Chronicles, Parts 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5 * 6 * 7 * 8 * 9 * 10 * 11 * 12 * 13