In late November 2011, NASA’s Curiosity rover was loaded into an Atlas V rocket and sent on its merry way to Mars—an eight- month journey through space. Armed to the teeth with an impressive array of scientific equipment, Curiosity will carry out a very specific mission: examine the Martian surface for signs of life.
This is not going to be an easy task. We recently saw first-hand just how tricky hurling spacecraft at the red planet can be. In early December, the Russians lost contact with the Phobos-Grunt space probe and it met its fiery demise upon re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere*.
But there’s another problem with NASA’s most recent foray—one that has been lurking in the backs of discerning minds throughout mission planning and execution. Curiosity is equipped with all the tools to needed to find life: It will look for water, organic molecules, bi-products of metabolic functions, and so on. Except that those are all the markers of life as we know it here on Earth. In a recent essay in Txchnologist, writer Carl Zimmer wondered if Curiosity’s search for life is too narrow; too Earth-centric. Is there a chance that it could completely miss a previously unknown form of life? In looking for “life as we know it,” will it miss “life as we haven’t seen before”?
Now, I doubt that such other-worldly life will take the form of a floating crystal that sings conversation-relevant 90′s pop songs (does Curiosity have a microphone?), but it illustrates the distinct possibility that our knowledge of life on Earth is blinding us to noticing life in other forms. Which is why it is important that as Curiosity does its work over there, those studying the data back here on Earth keep their eyes and minds open to possibilities that we may not immediately consider.
Before you start overturning cars at the sighting of a tiny bigfoot, let me add a caveat that such possibilities should probably be within reason and with sufficient evidence. Life is fascinating, strange, and diverse, but it’s probably not spork (or Spock)-like.
*Just yesterday, it was reported that Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin suspected that the Phobos-Grunt was shot down by none other than Ronald Reagan. The Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site (RTS) that is. He blames the doomed Russian probe on a blast of radar waves sent from the RTS. The Pentagon made a statement saying this was impossible, and meanwhile Russian scientists corroborated:
Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin ultimately concluded that the probe malfunctioned because of boring old “errors during production and test works, as well as the engineering flaws.” Someone just needs to tell the deputy prime minister. This isn’t something that can be blamed on Ronald Reagan. -Wired