Nova

7:00pm Wednesday, September 9 on TVNZ 6

People have long been fascinated with the idea that life exists elsewhere in the universe. Is There Life On Mars? poses the perennial question, and follows scientists as they seek signs of life on Earth’s closest planetary neighbour.

After four decades of fly-by probes, orbiters, landers, and rovers, the quest for life on Mars is as tantalising as ever. This Nova Special goes behind the scenes of the latest NASA missions to the Red Planet, to reveal new clues and challenges to answering this ultimate question – that Mars once or maybe even still harbours some form of life?

Whether there was ever life on this wetter, more Earth-like Mars is harder to say. Mars eludes us. Even as this planet surrenders its secrets, it remains stubbornly guarded about one, the question we have come in pursuit of, above all others. Key insight in this special is offered by planetary scientist Christopher McKay of the NASA Ames Research Centre:

“The geology is fascinating, and the climate is interesting in terms of atmospheric science,” informs McKay. “There is any number of things that you can study about the planet, but, to me, what makes Mars special is its potential as an abode for life.”

Nova also seeks opinion from palaeontologist, Andrew Knoll, of Harvard University, who contends that the possibility for life on Mars, past or present, is looking less and less likely:

“Let’s think about the requirements of life. Almost all of life on Earth exists within a fairly narrow band of environmental conditions.”

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. McKay fervently believes that definitive signs of life will eventually turn up:

“There’s a real distinct link between early Mars and early Earth. There’s a strong parallel there that strengthens the case for there being life, having been life on Mars.”

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. This sums up McKay’s argument:

“If it happened twice, right here in our own solar system, then we would have, for the first time, a good answer to the question, ‘is the universe full of life?’ The answer would be yes.”