ENE COLUMN: The shape of the cosmos

The astronomy community was set ablaze earlier this past week with a notable NASA scientist's comments about the possibility of life on Mars.

Dr. Jim Green, NASA's chief scientist, likely raised some eyebrows by saying he believes scientists are on the verge of discovering the existence of life on a body other than the Earth, and that the inhabitants of Earth are not ready for it.

With all due respect, the latter part of that is hogwash, but we'll get to that in a second.

The timing of his comments — at the very least, a little out of the blue — at first glance might seem a bit strange. But in the grand scheme of things, the timing isn't all that odd.

Here's why: NASA's Mars 2020 rover will land on the Red Planet on Feb. 18, 2021. This 2,300-pound vehicle will have the capability of doing something no rover has been able to do in the past. It will be able to look for and detect definitive signs of ancient life on Mars. Also, it will be able to detect current signs of life on or underneath the planet's crust.

Taking this one step further, the Mars 2020 rover will be able to collect samples of soil and rock — samples that perhaps have evidence of life. How to get this material back to Earth is another matter. But, when people land on Mars, they will at the very least have some samples to study.

Finally, the rover will be able to determine to what degree oxygen can be produced on the surface of Mars. Of course, oxygen is most important if humans ever want to breath there without space suits.

According to the U.K. Independent, Green told The Telegraph that the discovery would "start a whole new line of thinking. I don't think we're prepared for the results."

Just how close are we to finding life on Mars? There are two main possibilities here. One, and the more likely, is that it will be in less than five years, and that Mars 2020 will probably be what kick-starts this new era of science and astronomy. The other possibility — far less likely, in my opinion, but still possible — is that scientists have already discovered telltale signs of life on Mars and they are either a) doing a slow info leak or b) waiting to verify their thinking. The "b" sub-option is the more probable of the two, but I really wouldn't be surprised by anything.

Now, circling back around: Why would NASA's chief scientist be worried about the reaction to life on Mars?

These are not the Dark Ages. Humanity has evolved intellectually (at least, somewhat) to the point where our race can handle the notion that we are not alone. Sure, there will be a lot of people who don't believe it unless the evidence is shoved in their faces — and even then, there would be some who wouldn't believe. Think of the people who are confronted with crystal clear evidence the world is not flat, yet refuse to believe without a doubt that it is not. There will always be people like that.

The fact of the matter is that the clear majority of humanity will be just fine. The real mystery is to what degree it would change our lives individually.

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Malan is entertainment editor and astronomy columnist for the News & Eagle.

Have a question about this story? Do you see something we missed? Do you have a story idea for Joe? Send an email to jmalan@enidnews.com.

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