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Jonathan O`Callaghan 08 Mar 2017, 15:28

The question of life on Mars is arguably the greatest of our time. And we’re getting very close to an answer – much closer than you might think.

Mars has gripped us for decades, with science fiction authors of old imagining this world might be inhabited by intelligent beings like us. Scientists in the mid-20th century, too, thought at one point that Mars might have vegetation or other living matter on its surface. Their dreams were quashed when NASA’s Mariner 4 spacecraft returned the first images of Mars in 1965, revealing it to be a desolate world.

But the allure remains, mostly because our neighbor appears to have had Earth-like conditions in its distant past. It seemingly had all the necessary ingredients for life too, albeit probably only microbial life, so if it didn’t exist there, just how unique is our planet?

“If you somehow rule out any sign of biological activity on Mars, then you start having to think Earth must be really special,” said Monica Grady, professor in Planetary Sciences at the Open University, to IFLScience. Grady hosted a show on BBC Radio 4 in the UK this Monday called Hunting the Martians (available to listen online), as part of the BBC’s Mars Week taking place from March 4 to 10.

William Shatner narrates a short Aardman animation about Mars for the BBC

“If this chemistry hasn’t gone on on Mars, what’s stopping it?” Grady continued. “Then we’ve got to think, okay, our best hope of finding life in the Solar System has gone. We’d better start thinking we are alone in the Solar System, and therefore we have a custodial duty as much as anything else.”

To find out for sure, a variety of missions have been searching for signs of habitability, with more upcoming in the future. In 1976, NASA searched for life on Mars for the first time with its Viking 1 and 2 landers, with inconclusive results. Following a hiatus in Mars exploration, the turn of the century then saw us begin to get a greater grasp on what happened to Mars and what it’s like today.

The Phoenix Lander in 2008 discovered that there was frozen water beneath the surface, a ground-breaking discovery that hinted at vast reserves of ice underground. And after the Curiosity rover landed on Mars in August 2012, we discovered that its landing site – Gale Crater – was once the location of an ancient lake.

Missions like the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), meanwhile, have helped us map the surface and find areas of interest, and ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) spacecraft is about to start hunting for methane on the surface that may have a biological origin.

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