What happens when humans get there?
Astronauts will spend 18 months exploring the rocky, red planet searching for answers to two questions: ‘Was there or is there life on Mars?’ and ‘Will there be life on Mars?’
“Mars was once a warm and wet planet – it was warm and wet for a billion years which is five times as long as it took for life to appear on Earth,” says Zubrin.
The first evidence of life on Earth is in Australia in the form of stromatolites, the bacterial equivalent of coral reefs. Bacteria can create macroscopic fossils that go back around 3.5 billion years, says Zubrin.
“Almost immediately after water could form on Earth, life developed. If the theory is correct that life phenomenon of chemical complexification that occurs naturally when you have the right physical and chemical conditions, then it should appear on Mars,” he says.
Zubrin says that if scientists can find similar fossils on Mars, then humanity would have proven that the development of life in chemistry “is a general, not an exceptional phenomenon.”
“We now know that most stars have planets – the Kepler telescope has found thousands of extra solar planetary systems. Since the entire history of life on Earth is the development from simple to more complex forms manifesting greater degrees of capacities for activities and intelligence… if life is everywhere, it means that intelligence is everywhere and we are not alone in the universe.”
While on Mars, scientists will drill down about one kilometre to reach the groundwater.
“If there is life on Mars today, that’s where it will be found, not at the surface,” says Zubrin. “If we can bring those samples, examine that stuff and find life in it subject to biochemical analysis, we will be able to find if it’s the same as Earth life."
All Earth life is fundamentally the same at the level of its information system, it all uses DNA and RNA, which is idiosyncratic, a very specific method of recording and translating and utilising information, he says.
“It’s as if every computer was a Mac – that would be a disaster. But imagine this is what the cosmos is like. That’s what you see on the Earth, there’s only one information system in operation.
“Why can’t there be others? The real question is if life as we know it on Earth – what life is or are we just one specific example born from a much faster tapestry of possibilities that are exemplified elsewhere.”
At the end of their mission, the scientists will leave the habitat behind. Humans will then ask the next question, ‘Will there be life on Mars?
To answer this, we must establish a series of habitats all in one place, linking them up with the goal of supporting exploration but also doing engineering research, says Zubrin.
“[This will] advance our capacity to use Martian resources from just making fuel and oxygen out of the atmosphere to drawing water out of the soil, growing plants, extracting geothermal power for the subsurface – making bricks, plastics, ceramics, glasses, metals, wires, and tubes,” he says.
“If we can move up to that level of craft, then Mars becomes habitable. The thing that defines whether an environment is habitable or not is only partially a function of the objective character of the environment. It’s largely a function of you – of what you have in your mind, the level of craft you have.
“Two people could be stuck in the wilderness; one could starve half to death and the other could live there indefinitely. It’s because one can understand and perceive how to use the resources that are there and to the other they are invisible.”
What we are doing by showing that Mars is within our reach is illustrating that the resources that are potentially available to humanity are not limited to planet Earth to be fought over by nations for a shrinking piece of the pie, he says.
“Rather they are available in unlimited amounts to humanity willing to use its creative capacities to create an ever greater future. This is a different vision which is why it is one of the most critical things we can do. It’s only in a universe of unlimited resources that all men can be brothers.”
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