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If the volcanoes are still
alive, then there could also be thermal vents providing warmth and nutrients to
isolated pockets of life — similar to what we can see in and around
volcanic vents on earth.
The truth is, nobody really
knows what’s going on beneath the surface of Mars. There is no sign of plate
tectonics that would confirm activity beneath the crust of the planet, and
Mars’ magnetic field is also weak. Still, some researchers believe that Mars
has a liquid core similar to Earth, and possibly also a solid inner core that
could recharge the planet’s magnetic field at any time.
If Mars is incapable of
supporting complex life today, yesterday and tomorrow are a different story.
While the discovery of water
was significant, it should also be noted that the Phoenix lander also recently
confirmed that Mars’ soil likely contains perchlorates — compounds toxic
to most organic forms of life, but that could theoretically support some
extreme forms of bacterial life and plant life like we see on Earth. Scientists
are divided on whether the discovery of perchlorate is good or bad news for the
Mars mission, while others suggest it’s irrelevant — the compound may
only be found in certain areas of the planet, for example, or maybe Martian
organisms may have evolved to use the compound. Its existence neither confirms
nor denies the past or present existence of life, but it could ultimately limit
the types of organisms we might uncover in our explorations.
A Mars to Call Home
Some researchers are even
proposing that we seed Mars with some rudimentary life forms that can survive
similar extreme conditions on earth to eventually adapt Mars to support human
life. Terraforming the planet would be slow — thousands or tens of
thousands of years probably — but the theory is that various forms of
bacteria and algae could be planted there to alter conditions on the planet.
One way they could alter the
planet is by changing the atmosphere. For example, some bacteria might break
down the perchlorates and oxidized metals in the Martian soil, and release
increased oxygen in the atmosphere. Other bacteria or algae could also release
stored carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, which would in turn allow the
planet to retain more solar heat.