There was some big news yesterday that you might have missed. It appeared in the science section of the The New York Times (December 9, 2013):
[L]ife [on Mars], at least in the ancient past, is at least plausible.
John P. Grotzinger, a professor of geology at the California Institute of Technology who is the project scientist for the Curiosity mission, said that if certain microbes like those on present-day Earth had plopped into that ancient Martian lake [in Gale crater], they would most likely have found a pleasant place to call home.
“The environment would have existed long enough that they could have been sustained, prospered, grown, multiplied,” he said. “All the essential ingredients for life were present.
“Potentially the aqueous stream, lake, groundwater system could have existed for millions to tens of millions of years,” he added. “You could easily get a lake with the area of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York.”
The interpretation comes from detailed analysis of two mudstones drilled by Curiosity earlier this year. The structure, chemistry and mineralogy of the sedimentary rocks were not alien.
“The whole thing just seems extremely Earthlike,” Dr. Grotzinger said.
The scientists presented their latest findings at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco and in a set of six articles published in the journal Science.
Imagine dropping down onto the shore of such a lake on Mars 3.5 billion years ago and finding it dead, or with just microbes, indifferent to your own existence. It makes me think of lines from Charlton Heston in the original Planet of the Apes:
Seen from out here, everything seems different. Time bends, space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely.
God, if God exists, has set many landmines through our lives to upend the ego: aging; illness; financial, social, career, educational, marital, or sexual failure; learning that the world is filled with religions, ideas, and cultures not of your own; death; disability; finding out that the Milky Way galaxy, with its 400 billion stars, is itself just one of a billion in the known cosmos; the silence and hiddenness (hideousness?) of God and extraterrestrial civilizations (if they exist).
Add to this disorienting list the discovery of a 3.5 billion-year old fresh water lake in Gale crater on Mars. Long before the Earth had a single blade of grass or insect, it was. Long before the cave paintings were made at Altamira, it was. It changes the self to know this.
Here’s a bit more on the Gale crater news–from The Washington Post:
NASA’s steady reconnaissance of Mars with the Curiosity rover has produced another major discovery: evidence of an ancient lake — with water that could plausibly be described as drinkable — that was part of a long-standing, wet environment that could have supported simple forms of life.
Scientists have known that the young Mars was more Earthlike than the desert planet we see today, but this is the best evidence yet that Mars had swimming holes that stuck around for thousands or perhaps millions of years. (It would have been very chilly — bring a wet suit.) […]
The chemistry of the lake would have been congenial to organisms known as chemolithoautotrophs — mineral-eaters. Whether such organisms, which thrive on Earth in exotic environments such as caves and deep-sea hydrothermal vents, actually existed on the young Mars is a question Curiosity lacks the tools to answer.
“I’m most excited about the nature of the water,” said Jim Bell, an Arizona State University scientist who has worked with the cameras on Curiosity as well as two precursor rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, and is a co-author of four of the new papers. “Previous results from Spirit and Opportunity pointed to very acidic water, but what we’re seeing in Gale Crater is evidence of fresh water. Very neutral. Drinkable.”
Sources for images: NASA.