Video: Looking for Life in All the Right Places

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Video: Looking for Life in All the Right Places
07.24.07
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In 1976, two NASA Viking landers conducted life detection experiments on Mars. Most agree that the findings were inconclusive. Today, the search for life beyond Earth continues.

Max Coleman, JPL Senior Research Scientist
We're not looking for aliens. We're not even looking for fossils We'll be looking for bacteria, or signs of bacteria, and the reason for that is because for most of the Earth's history they have been the predominant form of life. The chances are it may be different from life on Earth and therefore what we have to look for is, is it doing the same things that life does on Earth.

Onscreen text Water

Leslie Tamppari, Phoenix Mars Mission Project Scientist
Water is a necessary component for life as we know it. So when we think about trying to understand life on other planets, one of our strategies is to understand the water. Coleman We're focusing on Mars because Mars in its early history may have been a lot warmer and wetter than it is now.

Tamppari
It looks like there used to be flowing liquid water on the surface of Mars but today there isn't any liquid water that we can find. Or if there is any it's very infrequent.

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Opportunity found patterns in rocks fromed long ago by water.

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Organics

Tamppari
We want to detect organics because organics are the building blocks for life. Organics are molecules that contain carbon. And we know that carbon is the central element that makes up our bodies and makes up life. So both Phoenix and the Mars Science Laboratory will search for organics on Mars. Phoenix is the next Mars lander mission. When we land on Mars we're going to land in the north polar region. That's about equivalent to Alaska latitudes on the Earth, or mid-Greenland. And our job is to land and dig down and sample the soils and ice that we'll encounter in that region of Mars

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Minerals

Coleman Mars Science Laboratory will have sophisticated instruments which will be able to look at the mineralogy in much more detail. But also looking at minerals which either were formed by organisms, living organisms, or show signs that living organisms were around when they were formed. But we're not only focusing on Mars. There are other places in the solar system which may have subsurface water.

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Saturn's moon Enceladus spews water vapor. Scientists believe Jupiter's moon Europa has a huge sub-surface ocean.

Coleman

Beyond the solar system, there are people who are looking at the planets which go around distant stars, trying to analyze their atmospheres. There's no silver bullet. We've got to take all the possible approaches, or at least a large number of them, and put all the bits together to see where to look and what to find. Looking for life outside the Earth to find out whether we're alone or not. Hey, what better job could there be? › View Vodcast