Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids. In fact it’s cold as hell.
Elton John, “Rocket Man” (1972)

Unquestionably, Mars was a habitable planet in its ancient past.
John P. Grotzinger, NASA Mars Project Scientist (2013)

Reading an article in the N.Y. Times science section recently about NASA’s Mars rover project, I was struck by Mr. Grotzinger’s quote.  “Unquestionably” Mars was habitable in the distant past?  I had not realized this had been definitively established, or even that it was likely.  Evidently, it is now beyond question.

We earthlings have long been intrigued by the possibility of life on Mars.  I went through a space-geek phase as a kid and was particularly fascinated by Mars.

While driving to the Wild Goose Festival we were listening to podcasts and I heard Krista Tippett’s fascinating interview of geomorphologist David Montgomery.  In it, he mentioned the discovery that Martian topography reveals evidence of enormous floods.  I had Mr. Grotzinger’s comment on my mind when I heard the podcast and was surprised to so soon be confronted with another statement about the Martian past.

So if Mars was once a habitable planet, with so much water that it dramatically altered the topography of the planet, how did it become the barren, dry place that it is now?  Why did it cease to be habitable?  Whatever the cause, is it reversible?

Most significantly, when Mars was habitable, was it inhabited?

Inquiring minds want to know…


15 comments on “Mars

  1. shoreacres says:

    “Unquestionably”? “Beyond question”? That’s not a very scientific attitude, now is it? While the presence of a particular sort of clay may suggest conditions similar to those found on earth, that hardly constitutes proof. There are too many variables – some of them still unknown. Such statements sound more like the beginning of a new round of grant-grabbing or a justification for more federal funds.

    Cynical? Me? Actually, I’m as intrigued by Mars as anyone, but I’ve also watched the politicization of NASA over the years and the push for quick “results” regardless of consequence. About a year ago, this was a topic of conversation down here. Sometimes, O-rings got mentioned in the same conversation.

    I’m not opposed to Mars exploration at all. But to say it was “habitable” in the past implies, for most people, human habitation. I’m not sure that’s justified.


    • Bill says:

      “Habitable” leaves plenty of room for maneuver. Certainly “habitable” isn’t the same thing as “inhabited.” But I agree that it’s natural to read that and jump to the conclusion that it means habitable by humans, as opposed to by some microbe. It’ll be an interesting story to follow.


      • It’s good of you to point that out. For decades I’ve noticed how often people talk glibly about “conditions required for life,” by which they mean life of the human kind. There could well be advanced beings that are very different physically from us.


  2. Jeff says:

    I’m surprised you didn’t know … the remote ancestors of homo sapiens came from Mars. Haven’t you read von Daniken?? They came here after destroying Mars. It took us a while, but we’re well on our way to doing the same thing here. Snark, snark …


    • Bill says:

      Actually I did read Chariots of the Gods when I was a kid. I remember finding it fascinating. But I haven’t thought of it in a long time and don’t recall seeing that theory being floated lately. I reckon it died a probably well-deserved death.


  3. I find both shoreacres and Jeff’s remarks intriguing but that’s because I love looking at all the possibilities. If we look at life just through the lens of being what is considered “human,” and if we then extrapolate life from all that implies, we may well be leaving out all the rest of creation, and all that implies, and that’s not justifiable. Creation is creation and from what I understand it’s the entire universe, no borders and no limitations, infinite comes to mind.


  4. claire says:

    Science or foolishness? What will happen when there is no more money to probe Mars? What will happen when the time comes that all cosmic events end in tremendous devastation? Will the Earth as we know it be no more? Knowledge of the future depends on redirecting cosmic elements to prevent Earth’s destruction…..did suspension of time and the suspension of the laws of nature end life on Mars? We know from history, in the time of Noah, the deluge removed all life from Earth.


    • Bill says:

      Heck, there’s no money to fund Mars probes now. But we aren’t the kind of society that let’s details like that interfere with our projects. 🙂

      The prevailing wisdom these days is that cosmic events will indeed end in tremendous destruction. Scientists reckon we have about another billion years before the sun cooks the earth into a lifeless rock. About 6.6 billion years later what’s left of the planet will be incinerated when the sun goes to red-giant stage. Of course that may not happen, given that our galaxy is expected to collide with the Andromeda galaxy in about 7 billion years. And us humans may not be around to witness any of that if we have a major comet or asteroid collision with the earth, those tending to occur every 100-250 million years or so.

      But notwithstanding all that, I like to believe that some currently unanticipated resiliency exists. I’m not ready to concede just yet. 🙂


  5. Diane says:

    Interesting post, certainly food for thought!! Have a good weekend Diane


  6. Ellen D. says:

    Actually, Bernie Taupin was the lyricist who wrote with Elton John!


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