The Mars Science Laboratory. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

When I hear about the search for alien life, it’s hard not to think about all the science fiction movies with little green men and Earth-destroying spacecraft. But it’s an idea that’s far from science fiction for scientists at NASA Ames.

NASA is preparing to send their next rover to the surface of Mars, known as the Mars Science Laboratory. It follows the legacy of the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity, who have survived far longer than NASA scientists expected. After four years, they’re still sending data from the Martian surface. (For an update, check out this post from QUEST blogger Ben Burress).

The Mars Science Lab rover will have a few upgrades, though. It’s much larger than Spirit and Opportunity and will be nuclear-powered — meaning no solar cells that are vulnerable to dust storms. It will also be carrying the most advanced lab equipment yet, some of which will look for organic matter on the surface. The goal to discover how habitable the surface could have been for life.

When it comes to what kind of life, it’s microbial life that many scientists believe is the best case scenario. There have been a number of recent discoveries that are promising evidence that liquid water once existed on the surface. But if even the conditions were right for life then, they’re certainly not right today. Thanks to a thin atmosphere, Mars is bombarded by solar radiation and conditions are dry and cold. Still, many scientists think there’s a possibility that life could survive in the subsurface, where it’s warmer and more sheltered.

The question most of us would ask, though, is: even if we found extraterrestrial life someday, how would we recognize it? NASA scientist Chris McKay explained his take to me. It turns out there are some basic things scientists believe they could look for. You can hear what he has to say in this audio clip:

McKay brought up another interesting point — we’ve already sent earthlings to Mars. The NASA rovers were built in clean rooms, but they’re not completely sterile. Chances are there are microbes from Earth on Mars now, protected inside machinery we built. McKay believes this contamination is reversible, and there’s already a policy in place to protect both Earth and Mars known as planetary protection.  You can hear McKay explain why it’s so important in this clip.

No matter what the outcome of the Mars Science Lab mission, there’s a lot more to discover about what Mars is like today and about its past.

Watch the Looking for Mars Life on Planet Earth report online.

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Reporter’s Notes: Looking for Mars Life on Planet Earth 2 October,2015Lauren Sommer


Lauren Sommer

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, Science Friday and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.

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