NOVA: Is There Life on Mars?

Tue, 12/30/2008 - 8:00pm

The Phoenix lander, whose mission is to land in icy soils near the north polar permanent ice cap of Mars and explore the history of the water in these soils and any associated rocks, while monitoring polar climate.


After four decades of fly-by probes, orbiters, landers and rovers, the quest for life on Mars is as tantalizing as ever. NOVA goes behind the scenes of the latest NASA missions to the Red Planet to reveal new clues and challenges on the road to answering this ultimate question. NOVA: Is There Life on Mars? airs Tuesday, December 30 at 8 p.m. on WXXI-TV 21 (cable 11) and WXXI-HD (cable 1011 and DT 21.1).

With unique access to the NASA Phoenix and Mars exploration rover missions, NOVA shows scientists and engineers in action, directing the operations of spacecraft millions of miles away, as the robotic explorers drill into rock, claw into soil, analyze samples and trundle across the rock-strewn landscape in search for signs that Mars once harbored or maybe still harbors some form of life.

They may not be on Mars themselves, but there is drama enough for the Earth-bound operators, as they must deal with harsh Martian conditions and equipment emergencies in pursuit of their science objectives. NOVA captures the payoff in stunning surprises that bring cheers to the science operations centers.

So far, there is good news and bad news on Mars. The good news is that the planet has water today in the form of subsurface ice, and there is evidence that water once flowed in abundance across the planet billions of years ago. The Martian soil is also conducive to life in some locations, although neither Phoenix nor the twin rovers were equipped to look for life directly.

The bad news is that for all its superficial resemblance to Earth, Mars and our planet clearly took different paths billions of years ago. Mars today is a cold, dry, hostile world with an ultra-thin atmosphere that won’t support liquid water at the surface.

What happened? Through interviews with scientists and stunning computer animations of the changing Martian environment, NOVA pieces together a picture of a world rocked by cataclysms. One relic of an ancient catastrophe is a mysterious global difference between the terrain in the northern and southern hemispheres.

To explain this asymmetry, a recent theory proposes that Mars once captured an asteroid into orbit around the planet, generating a strong magnetic field in the process and resulting in a thicker atmosphere and surface water. The object later crashed into Mars, creating the dramatic contrast between northern and southern terrain, and also rendering the planet the arid place it is today.

Whether there was ever life on this wetter, more Earth-like Mars is harder to say. NOVA interviews paleontologist Andrew Knoll of Harvard University and planetary scientist Christopher McKay of the NASA Ames Research Center. Both are on the science teams for Mars landing missions.

Knoll contends that the possibility for life on Mars — past or present — is looking less and less likely as the data come in. By contrast, McKay fervently believes that definitive signs of life will eventually turn up.

With the issue still up in the air, both sides feel all the more compelled to get to the bottom of this momentous question, which can only be answered by more missions and new discoveries on this enigmatic world.