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Is there life on Mars and other worlds?

Amathur Musarrath discusses the potential for having life on planets and other objects beyond earth.

What potential is there for life on planets and other objects beyond Earth?

By Amathur Musarrath

Just as the universe is expanding, so is the field of astrobiology. Life on other planets has long been speculated by many, and have gained public interest due to the work of well-known astronomers like Carl Sagan and Percival Lowell. I’m sure looking out into the vast expanse of the sky must have made you question the same thing at one point. The launch of SETI (search for extra-terrestrial intelligence) by founders Carl Sagan and Frank Drake gave rise to the scientific discussion of extra-terrestrial life. Recent estimates of planets Earth-like planets have been calculated to about 1022, so there is a significant number of planets that could potentially contain life. However, accuracy of the of this estimate is constantly being challenged and refined. Although searching for life on other planets is a large aspect of astrobiology, the interdisciplinary field also involves the study of life on Earth and the origins of life itself.

The most speculated planet that is thought to have harboured life in the past is the red planet, Mars. From its discovery by Galileo in 1610 to the recent InSight mission lead by NASA, aiming to find further information about its interior, there is still a lot to discover about this planet. The presence of river valleys is the biggest indicator that life may have been present. This previously led to astronomer Percival Lowell mistakenly announcing life on Mars with very little evidence in his time. Water is a vital ingredient to life anywhere, making up around 60% of your body. It is an important solvent and key in metabolic processes; it’s one of the first on the checklist when searching for life elsewhere.

Another unlikely contender for life is Enceladus, one of the 62 moons orbiting Saturn. The discovery of organic molecules, the presence of water beneath the icy surface and the detection of molecular hydrogen are all key for life to thrive, which point in the direction that life may be present here. The presence of molecular hydrogen has been likened to the activity deep beneath the Earth’s surface where there are hydrothermal vents. It is now widely known that a wide variety of organisms, called extremophiles, manage to survive in these intense conditions, leading to the question of whether there are also extremophiles lurking beneath the surface of Enceladus.

Current research is expanding at a fast rate. In early January of 2019, many scientists were in awe of the furthest object reached by a spacecraft. Ultima Thule, minor planet that is even further from the Sun than Neptune, consists of two bodies that were thought to have coalesced into one during the early formation of the Universe. Images will be refined throughout the year as scientists aim to study the surface to gain a deeper understanding of the conditions of the early Universe. This recent discovery and the many more to come will always be accompanied by the question of whether life could also be present. It will undoubtedly take many space explorations to find an answer, but with the constant advancements in technology, we may be closer than we think.

From Issue 18

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