We've been conjecturing about life on Mars for centuries. In popular culture, the concept of intelligent life on Mars was championed by astronomer Percival Lowell in the late 1800s and his theories on the Martian canals. Science fiction writers -- always game for some reckless conjecture -- took up the banner from there.
Perhaps the most famous Martians in the history of sci-fi and popular culture, the invaders in H.G. Wells' 1898 novel "War of the Worlds," have since spawned dozens of films, TV shows, comic books and one very famous radio drama.
Telescopic observations of Mars in the late 19th and early 20th centuries appeared to show long surface lines that some believed were man-made (well, Martian-made) irrigation canals. Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli made this map of Mars from his notes on the telescope images.
Science fiction writers often depicted Martians as an advanced humanoid race intent on conquering Earth. In "Flash Gordon's Trip To Mars" (1938), Azura Queen of Mars subjugates her own Martian people. Ray Bradbury would later conceive of a kinder, gentler race in "The Martian Chronicles."
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Space explorer stories were a regular staple in the pulp fiction magazines of the early 1900s, and Edgar Rice Burroughs was another author to speculate at length on Mars' inhabitants. His Martians included the six-limbed, green-skinned Tharks and humanoid Red Martians.
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The so-called Grey Alien is a kind of archetype image of an extraterrestrial -- not necessarily from Mars -- that has arisen from fictional depictions, alleged alien abduction stories and conjecture on what an advanced race of beings would look like.
On July 25, 1976, NASA's Viking 1 orbiter captured the above image on the surface of Mars' Cydonia region. The infamous "Face on Mars" prompted decades of speculation, although scientists have long dismissed the image as an example of pareidolia; e.g. seeing shapes in the clouds, or Jesus in your toast.
Legendary Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones created the character of Marvin the Martian in 1948 as a foil for Bugs Bunny. As devotees of Saturday morning cartoons know, Marvin is forever plotting to destroy the Earth by way of his Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator. Apparently, we obstruct his view of Venus.
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Director Tim Burton played around with B-movie tropes and pop art notions of Martians in his 1996 film "Mars Attacks!" Brian De Palma followed up a few years later with "Mission to Mars," a huge critical and commercial bomb. (Although the French critics liked it -- really.)
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As is its eternal wont, pop culture is constantly recycling its own ideas -- Martians included. In 1999, Christopher Lloyd starred as the titular alien in director Donald Petrie's reboot of the 1960s TV show "My Favorite Martian," which was itself inspired by earlier pulp sci-fi stories.
We will eventually have the technology to make Mars a more habitable planet — but for whom? Earthlings, or Martians?
By definition, Mars terraforming would make it more Earth-like. Alternatively, Mars renovation would seek to resuscitate any native life that might have survived in environmental niches for billions of years. Astrobiologist Chris McKay, of NASA’s Ames Research Center, favors a non-geocentric term: planetary ecosynthesis, for establishing a robust biosphere on a planet’s surface.
Mars is certainly a prize for colonization. The Red Planet has as much surface area as all of Earth’s continents combined, making it the focus of several grassroots space pioneering groups.
But this presents a conundrum. McKay asks if a biologically rich and diverse Mars is more valuable than largely preserving the beautiful, but seemingly dead, world we are exploring today.
Regardless of the tenants, the first task at hand is to change the Martian atmosphere to make the Red Planet a warmer and wetter world. Mars’ large flood features indicate there is a lot of water locked in the planet; there was likely even an ocean 4 billion years ago. The world first needs to be thawed out.
Super greenhouse gasses — such as chlorofluorocarbons — could be introduced. This would warm the Red Planet and release frozen carbon dioxide for further warming. This would eventually allow for rivers and streams to again flow under a denser atmosphere. The Big Thaw would take a few centuries by McKay’s estimates.
But he predicts that it would take another 100,000 years for genetically engineered photosynthetic lifeforms to raise atmospheric oxygen to Earth levels. The oxygen could build an ozone shield against deadly solar ultraviolet rays. This might be bolstered by seeding the atmosphere annually with 10 million tons of stinky carbonyl sulfide (a gas emitted by volcanism on Earth).
If non-biological technologies could be developed for converting Mars’ carbon dioxide into oxygen, the planet might have breathable air in 10,000 years. It’s time to buy Martian acreage now before prices skyrocket.
Arctic and alpine tundra ecosystems would first emerge. Next, the lower parts of the equatorial canyons on Mars would see a treeline form as plant based photosynthesis takes over from the microorganisms.
Some of the humblest of creatures would come next: Insects and soil invertebrates such as earthworms, er, marsworms. Pollination by flying insects — with huge wingspans — would greatly increase the diversity of plants grown on Mars through colonization. But let’s not introduce flies or mosquitoes!
This strategy turns the table if in fact we find Martian microorganisms. Then our goal should be to do triage and restoration of the ecology on Mars that may have flourished 4 billion years ago. We could “play God” and jump start Martian evolution. We’d then have a ringside seat to see Darwinian evolution play on along a completely different, but perhaps parallel, track to Earth’s evolution.
“Restoring that (Martian) life to global diversity would have to be the best possible option for Mars,” McKay wrote. “However if life on Mars is genetically related to life on Earth or if there is no life to revive on Mars, then, a Mars teaming with Earth life is the next best option.”
This is a decision that humanity will ultimately face. It will open our first major extraterrestrial dilemma. As the most advanced form of life in the solar system, are we entitle to assert a biological Manifest Destiny over other worlds?
Do we reshape Mars in man’s image, or reboot a Martian Genesis II?
Image credit: NASA