Life on Mars: Imagining Martians

If you had the chance to travel to Mars, would you take it?

Astronomer David A. Weintraub thinks it won’t be long before we are faced with this question not as a hypothetical, but as a real option. Based on the pace of research and the growing private interest in space exploration, humans might be considering trips to Mars before the next century.

In his new book Life on Mars: What to Know Before We Go, Weintraub argues that would-be colonizers of the red planet should first learn whether life already exists on Mars. Just as colonization of various parts of Earth has historically decimated human, animal, and plant populations, so, argues Weintraub, will human colonization of Mars dramatically affect and likely destroy any life that might already exist on Mars. Before we visit, we need to know what – and whom – we might be visiting.

While scientists have yet to determine whether life exists on the red planet, they agree that if Martians do exist, they probably aren’t little green men. So where does our popular idea of Martians come from? Artists and writers have been imagining and depicting Martian life in a variety of ways since long before space travel was a reality. Check out these descriptions of imagined Martian life from over one hundred years ago.

Cover of The Martian, by George du Maurier

In George du Maurier’s 1897 gothic science fiction story The Martian, Martians are described as furry amphibians who are highly skilled in metalworking and sculpting:

“Man in Mars is, it appears, a very different being from what he is here. He is amphibious, and descends from no monkey, but from a small animal that seems to be something between our seal and our sea-lion….

“His five senses are extraordinarily acute, even the sense of touch in his webbed fingers and toes….

“These exemplary Martians wear no clothes but the exquisite fur with which nature has endowed them, and which constitutes a part of their immense beauty….

“They feed exclusively on edible moss and roots and submarine seaweed, which they know how to grow and prepare and preserve. Except for heavy-winged bat-like birds, and big fish, which they have domesticated and use for their own purposes in an incredible manner (incarnating a portion of themselves and their consciousness at will in their bodies), they have cleared Mars of all useless and harmful and mutually destructive forms of animal life. A sorry fauna, the Martian—even at its best—and a flora beneath contempt, compared to ours.”

“How the Earth Men Learned the Martian Language,” from Edison’s Conquest of Mars by Garrett P. Serviss

In Garrett Serviss’s Edison’s Conquest of Mars (1898), on the other hand, Martians are huge creatures, two to three times as tall as a human:

“It is impossible for me to describe the appearance of this creature in terms that would be readily understood. Was he like a man? Yes and no. He possessed many human characteristics, but they were exaggerated and monstrous in scale and in detail. His head was of enormous size, and his huge projecting eyes gleamed with a strange fire of intelligence. His face was like a caricature, but not one to make the beholder laugh. Drawing himself up, he towered to a height of at least fifteen feet.”

Edwin Lester Arnold, in Lieut. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation, published in 1905, describes Martians instead as “graceful and slow,” with an “odor of friendly, slothful happiness about them”:

“They were the prettiest, daintiest folk ever eyes looked upon, well-formed and like to us as could be in the main, but slender and willowy, so dainty and light, both the men and the women, so pretty of cheek and hair, so mild of aspect, I felt, as I strode amongst them, I could have plucked them like flowers and bound them up in bunches with my belt. And yet somehow I liked them from the first minute; such a happy, careless, light-hearted race, again I say, never was seen before.” 

“The old man sat and talked with me for hours,” from A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

And in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, published in 1917, Martians are finally depicted as the little green men of the popular imagination:

“Five or six had already hatched and the grotesque caricatures which sat blinking in the sunlight were enough to cause me to doubt my sanity. They seemed mostly head, with little scrawny bodies, long necks and six legs, or, as I afterward learned, two legs and two arms, with an intermediary pair of limbs which could be used at will either as arms or legs. Their eyes were set at the extreme sides of their heads a trifle above the center and protruded in such a manner that they could be directed either forward or back and also independently of each other, thus permitting this queer animal to look in any direction, or in two directions at once, without the necessity of turning the head.

“The ears, which were slightly above the eyes and closer together, were small, cup-shaped antennae, protruding not more than an inch on these young specimens. Their noses were but longitudinal slits in the center of their faces, midway between their mouths and ears.

“There was no hair on their bodies, which were of a very light yellowish-green color. In the adults, as I was to learn quite soon, this color deepens to an olive green and is darker in the male than in the female. Further, the heads of the adults are not so out of proportion to their bodies as in the case of the young.”

To learn more about Martians in popular culture, the history of planetary astronomy, and the scientific search for life on Mars, read David Weintraub’s Life on Mars!

The search for deep life on Earth… and what it means for Mars

Onstott_Deep LifeThe living inhabitants of the soil and seas are well known to biologists. We have long studied their food chains, charted their migration, and speculated about their evolutionary origins. But a mile down an unused tunnel in the Beatrix mine in South Africa, Tullis C. Onstott, Professor of Geosciences at Princeton and author of Deep Life, is on a quest for mysterious bacteria and microbes that require neither oxygen nor sun to survive. When they open up an old valve, water full of microbes and even little worms flows—a discovery with stunning implications. The New York Times has chronicled Onstott’s research in a feature that asks, was there ever life on Mars? And could it still exist far below the surface? That organisms are nourished by our own earth’s core, thriving in darkness encased in hard rock provides major insights:

The same conditions almost certainly exist on Mars. Drill a hole there, drop these organisms in, and they might happily multiply, fueled by chemical reactions in the rocks and drips of water.

“As long as you can get below the ice, no problems,” Dr. Onstott said. “They just need a little bit of water.”

But if life that arose on the surface of Mars billions of years ago indeed migrated underground, how long could it have survived, and more to the point, how can it be found? Kenneth Chang writes:

If life is deep underground, robotic spacecraft would not find them easily. NASA’s InSight spacecraft, scheduled to launch in 2018, will carry an instrument that can burrow 16 feet into the ground, but it is essentially just a thermometer to measure the flow of heat to the surface. NASA’s next rover, launching in 2020, is largely a clone of Curiosity with different experiments. It will drill rock samples to be returned to Earth by a later mission, but those samples will be from rocks at the surface.

In the meantime, what can we learn deep in Earth’s mines? What do we know now about the energy required to sustain life underground? As Chang notes, if Beatrix is a guide, methane could be the answer:

As NASA’s Curiosity rover drove across Gale Crater a couple of years ago, it too detected a burp of methane that lasted a couple of months. But it has not detected any burps since.

Perhaps an underground population of methanogens and methanotrophs is creating, then destroying methane quickly, accounting for its sudden appearance and disappearance from the atmosphere. If Beatrix is a guide, the methane could be providing the energy for many other microbes.

Conventional wisdom is that Martian life, if it exists, would be limited to microbes. But that too is a guess. In the South African mine, the researchers also discovered a species of tiny worms eating the bacteria.
“It’s like Moby Dick in Lake Ontario,” Dr. Onstott said. “It was a big surprise to find something that big in a tiny fracture of a rock. The fact it would be down there in such a confined space slithering around is pretty amazing.”

A full account of Dr. Onstott’s work appears in the New York Times feature, Visions of Life on Mars in Earth’s Depths.

Read more about Deep Life: The Hunt for the Hidden Biology of Earth, Mars, and Beyond here.