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Mars, eh?

Canada’s important and growing contribution to Mars exploration

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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.