The possibility of life on Mars has long been an area of interest for scientists and UFO buffs alike. In 1996, scientists discovered what appeared to
be organic formations, bacteria, and other such fossils in a meteorite that fell in Antartica. Since this discovery, interest in the possibility of
life on Mars has grown. How will scientists be able to discover life, however? Scientists at Carnegie Melon have been working with scientists for
SETI and NASA to devlop a means of detecting possible microscopic life both on and below the surface of Mars. The core of the system is a flourescent
dye that glows under a xenon lamp in the prescence of organic matter. Recent tests using a robotic rover named Zoe (after the Greek word for life) in
the Atacama Desert (one of the dryest locations on Earth, often used as a stand-in for Mars), have provided great results pointing towards the success
of the system.
To simulate a real mission, a second team of scientists led by Dr. Nathalie A. Cabrol, a planetary geologist at the SETI Institute and NASA Ames
Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., gathered in Pittsburgh. The scientists there acted as mission control, reviewing images and data collected
by Zoë and deciding what it should do next.
While Zoë possessed the intelligence to roam at speeds up to 2 miles an hour, its operations were not completely autonomous. For one, Dr. Waggoner
and others had to follow the rover around and squirt the fluorescent dyes onto the rocks as needed when the scientists in Pittsburgh found a rock that
they thought merited closer analysis.
Once the dyes soaked in, a xenon lamp on Zoë's underside flashed. If DNA, proteins or chlorophyll, which is naturally fluorescent, were present, they
would glow, their presence captured by a digital camera and radioed back to Pittsburgh.
After Zoë finished its work, the trailing scientists collected rock and soil samples to verify the rover's examination. In moister areas along the
coast, Zoë successfully found lichens on rocks. In a drier area, Zoë reported DNA and proteins on seemingly barren rocks. Later, scientists were
able to cultivate bacteria from those rocks.
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While tests seem to be quite capable of detecting microscopic life on Mars, delivery of a complete system to administer these tests still needs a
little work. Since the Zoe robot has proven successful, this will probably be the means used to administer the tests. However, Zoe still needs to be
outfitted with a spray system to apply the dyes as well as a means of drilling, tunneling, or otherwise burrowing beneath the Martian landscape to
test for subterrainean life.
Hopefully, results of these tests will finally put to rest the arguments of the existence of extra-terrestrial life, and instead limit it to the
debate of the levels of evolution achieved by extra-terrestrial life.
It is not believed that life on Mars, if it exists, has evolved much beyond the bacterial stage.
Interestingly enough, the scientific community seems to support the idea that Mars at least once supported life, if it doesn't still:
In an informal poll taken last month at a conference in the Netherlands, three-quarters of 250 scientists working on the European Space
Agency's Mars Express mission said they believed Mars once possessed conditions hospitable to life. One quarter believe it still does.