By Marina Koren
The very first time NASA put a robot on Mars, it was looking for one thing: life.
When scientists examined the mission’s early findings, they sent for champagne. They were convinced they’d discovered proof, quietly metabolizing, in the soil. But the data turned out to be muddled, and one experiment designed to detect organic molecules found none, not even simple ones that astronauts had found on the moon.
Nearly half a century after that mission, its latest successor, a rover called Perseverance, left Earth this morning to scour Mars’s surface for signs of alien microbes.
The thought of the red planet bustling with alien beings has fascinated scientists for centuries. Some imagined a landscape shaped by an intelligent civilization—until telescopes became sophisticated enough to detail the planet’s surface. Others thought they saw dark swaths of vegetation, even a seasonal bloom—until orbiters revealed that the shadows were just shifting dust. By the mid-1970s, when the Viking mission launched, the only aliens Earthlings thought of encountering were microbes, which scientists had found could survive in Mars-like conditions simulated in labs. This new rover is the biggest and most technologically sophisticated spacecraft NASA has ever sent to Mars to answer one of the oldest questions: Does life exist anywhere but Earth?
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