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Hunting the Martians


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As part of Radio 4's Mars season, planetary scientist Monica Grady looks at the history of our search for life on Mars, and explores the prospects for its discovery in the future. As a small rocky planet, Mars is similar in many respects to the Earth and for that reason, many have thought it must harbour some kinds of life. A hundred years ago, there was serious talk about the possibility of advanced civilisations on the Red Planet. Even in early 1970s, scientists mused that plant-like aliens might grow on the Martian soil. The best hope now is for something microbial. But the discovery that even simple life survives there today or did some time in its history would be a profound one. We would know that life is not something special to Earth. Monica herself studied the famous meteorite from Mars which in 1996 Nasa scientists claimed contained traces of fossil microbes from the planet's early times. She wasn't convinced, along with most of the scientific community. But the excitement around that meteorite renewed humanity's quest for life on the Red Planet, with robotic mission after the robotic mission in the past 20 years. As Monica hears from fellow Martian hunters, NASA's Curiosity rover has discovered that 3.8 billion years ago, there were conditions hospitable to life on Mars - a sustained period of time with lakes and rivers of water, and the earlier rover Spirit found deposits of silica from ancient hot springs which some planetary scientists argue bear the hallmarks of being moulded by microbes - possibly. The next five years may dramatically advance the hunt for life on Mars. Most tantalising is the ExoMars rover, to be sent by the European and Russian space agencies. That will drill 2 metres into the Red Planet's soil and sample material shielded from the sterilising solar radiation. It will analyse for life both extant and extinct. In the future, either robotic or possibly human missions may even explore Martian cave systems on the flanks of its vast volcanoes. Monica talks to Nasa's Penny Bosto



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