According to an image snapped by NASA’s Spirit rover on the surface of the Red Planet, what appear to be silica formation poking out of the soil could, in fact, have been formed by microbial life on the red planet.
The anomalous formations spotted by the rover look eerily similar to structures formed by microbes around geysers here on Earth. These mysterious formations belong to a long list of ‘indications’ which suggest the red planet has supported – and still supports. Microbial forms of life.
The theory, proposed years ago has been widely rejected by numerous scientists around the world who suggest it’s nearly impossible to find microbial life on Mars. However, new data received from Mars suggests otherwise. Even though the hunt for signs of life on Mars has been going on for decades, it seems that every once in a while we find something new that completely changes everything we know about Mars.
Back in 2008, a group of scientists announced the Spirit rover discovered mineral deposits called opaline silica at the Gusev Crater on the red planet. While this discovery on its own isn’t something of great importance, the silica’s shape, whose outer layers are believed to have been covered in tiny nodules that resemble heads of cauliflower sprouting from the harsh red Martian soil is, in fact, a noteworthy discovery. The great mystery about this discovery is that none has been able to understand, how these shapes –referred to as ‘microdigitate silica protrusions’ – had formed.
Looking at similar discoveries here on Earth, in the Chilean desert, Steven Ruff and Jack Farmer, both of Arizona State University in Tempe, believe that silica might have been carefully sculpted by microorganisms, something that has led numerous scientists to speculate a similar scenario might have occurred on our neighboring planet, Mars.
As things look now, the silica cauliflower discovered on Mars could be interpreted as the most important discovery in the history of astronomy. However, as numerous researchers stress, biology is a hard game to play, since it is very difficult to prove something located millions of kilometers away.
However, this isn’t the first time NASA’s rovers found something that might indicate life on Mars. In the distant past, the Viking 1 lander which landed on Mars forty years ago in 1976 performed three experiments in search of life. While three of these came out negative, one of them called Labeled Release experiment discovered that there was ‘something’ in the Martian soil that absorbed nutrient solutions that scientists fed it, releasing, in turn, an excretory plume of CARBON DIOXIDE, eerily similar to microorganisms that were ‘metabolizing’ nutrients. However, the group of researchers could not replicate these results and thus the experiment was tagged as being inconclusive and the search ended.
Researchers remain skeptical about the Martian cauliflower
“Having worked on modern hot springs, I have seen all forms of structures that look biological but are not,” Konhauser says. Silica can come from non-biological processes and water, geography, wind or other environmental factors can then shape it into complex structures. “Because it looks biological doesn’t mean it is,” he says.
While nothing has been concluded so far, scientists stress that, while these signs on Mars could be abiotic in nature, there is a possibility that they are onto something, the precise reason why they are calling attention to the Martian cauliflower since they believe, it’s worth further studies.
“Only when something that we have identified as a potential biosignature is proven to have been produced only by life, and not by any abiotic means, can we make the claim that definitive evidence for life has been found,” says Sherry Cady of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, who is a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute.
We can conclude that Mars has been a subject for debate in recent months and has proven to be far more surprising and even possibly more ‘life-friendly’ than researchers ever anticipated.
The questions that remain in the open is… just how would astronomers react, if they found out Mars can support primitive life?