|Mars: Evidence of Life and Past Civilizations?|
What's up with Mars? Mars the mysterious. Mars the enigmatic. Since ancient man began tracking the unique red world across the night sky, we have always known there is something special about Mars. The invention of the telescope brought it in to clearer view, and for the first time we could distinguish intriguing markings on the planet's surface that Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli in 1877 called canali. American astronomer Percival Lowell, publicized by the popular media of the time, literally (and mistakenly) interpreted Schiaparelli's term with the idea that there were artificial canals on Mars - and the notion that Mars was inhabited by intelligent life became more widespread.
In the decades that followed, science fiction stories and motion pictures explored the fantasy of Mars life, while science produced more powerful telescopes and rocket-propelled probes that revealed an equally awesome reality: a planet of gigantic canyons, dust storms and massive volcanoes that dwarf their Earthly counterparts.
What draws us to Mars? Although it is much smaller than Earth, Mars is the most Earth-like planet in our solar system, bearing many similar geological features, including polar ice caps and what appear to be ancient (but now dry) river beds. In fact, many planetary scientists suspect that in the distant past Mars was even more Earth-like, with raging river systems and vast oceans. And this theory is strengthened by the recent discovery of evidence that there are vast amounts of water ice lying just beneath the surface of Mars. And where there's water, many researchers conclude, there may be life.
But is there life on Mars? Despite the controversy surrounding Mars meteorites that some scientists think contain fossils of ancient Martian bacteria-like life forms, there is no conclusive evidence that life currently or ever existed on Mars.
That, however, does not mean that life wasn't - or isn't - present. And is that what really draws us to Mars? Is our fascination with Mars a factor of life seeking life? Living creatures in startling variety have been found thriving in even the most inhospitable places on Earth, from the frozen Arctic to the sunless depths of the oceans. So life on Mars today is far from a ridiculous idea.
Although there is no conclusive evidence for life on Mars, there are some tantalizing photos sent back from the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) that some mainstream scientists think might show Martian life forms, and other photos that some less-mainstream researchers suggest could depict evidence of intelligent life on Mars!
Martian Trees and Shrubs
Click photos for enlargements.
Recently released photos, seen at right, taken by MGS look quite like aerial photos of an Earth desert dotted with shrub growth. But these sand dunes are in the southern hemisphere of Mars. A Hungarian research team, which has been analyzing the photos (and other photos of the same area over time), has concluded that the black dots are indeed living organisms.
"Each spring," writes David Leonard in an article for Space.com, "[the Hungarians] report, 'gray fuzzy spots' appear in the bottom of the ice cover. By the middle of the first half of spring, these spots become darker, are bounded, and grow in size. By early summer defrosting, the naked dark soil of the dune is visible, and surrounded by a lighter ring. Year by year, the dark dune spots 'renew' on the same place with almost the same configuration, or 'constellation' of patches. This repeat action, the team asserts, strengthens their suggestion of fixed, biological causes of spot formation."
The Hungarian scientists conclude that this strongly suggests the life cycle of some kind of plant life.
NASA and its associated research teams don't agree with this conclusion. Their theory is that the dark spots are "the result of springtime defrosting process on Mars, not signs of biology." A somewhat less dismissive opinion from Bruce Jakosky, a Mars researcher at the University of Colorado in Boulder, states that the conclusion for Martian biology is "premature... when other, simpler processes have not been ruled out."
Click for enlargement.
Another controversial photo, shown at right, reveals much larger forms that look like spreading trees as seen from above. No less a personage than respected author Arthur C. Clarke opined that they resemble Earth's Banyan trees. He too noted that these forms appear to change with the seasons, growing with the warmth and increased sunlight of Mars's spring season, just as vegetation would. But NASA has likewise explained these shapes as some kind of freezing/defrosting phenomenon or a part of the "bizarre geology" of Mars.
Both theories are just that, however - theories. NASA doesn't know any better than the Hungarians what these changing forms on the Martian surface really are. The only way to find out for certain is to direct one of our upcoming Martian rovers to the area and photograph them. It seems it would certainly be worth the effort to find out conclusively.
And while they're at it, perhaps they could send another probe to examine some perplexing Martian features that look as though they were built by intelligent creatures.
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