Life on Mars
By Antonio C. Abaya
Written on May 28, 2008
For the Standard Today,
May 29 issue
After a journey that took almost ten months, NASA’s Phoenix Lander landed in the north pole region of the Planet Mars last Sunday, May 25, to begin a three-month search for signs of life beneath the permafrost surface.
No other planet in our solar system has excited the human imagination as Mars, for the most part because of apparent “canals” that crisscrossed the Martian surface, which suggested the existence of a superior civilization that constructed them, but which were later found to be mere optical illusions.
The first landing on Mars’ surface was made by the Viking 2 space craft in 1976 – almost ancient history in the annals of space – which sampled the Martian soil. It found no signs of life, no microbial organism, certainly no superior civilization.
Phoenix Lander’s main mission is to analyze the sub-surface, up to a depth of less than a meter, for signs of organic life, to see if life as we know it on Earth could have existed on Mars in the past, or is existing in the present, or could exist in the future.
All life forms on earth – animal or vegetable – is made up of four key elements: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, joined together in myriad combinations or compounds, the most basic of which – for animal life – is amino acid. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, which in turn are the building blocks of all living organisms.
Past missions to Mars, since the first flyby by Mariner 4 in 1965, have determined that the Martian atmosphere is 95 percent carbon dioxide, 3 percent nitrogen, 1.6 percent argon (an inert gas) plus traces of oxygen and water. The red color of the Martian soil is said to be due to the heavy presence of iron oxide or rust.
So the key elements for life as we know it on Earth are present in Mars. By digging below the Martian surface and analyzing the soil below the permafrost, the Phoenix Lander hopes to provide definitive answers: was there life on Mars in the past, is there life there at present?
Any organisms from the past would be embedded in the ice, the way insects from tens of millions of years ago are embedded in amber resin here on Earth. Discovery of such organisms would constitute the most Earth-shaking news in the 21st century, even if that organism were only a one-celled paramecium.
It would provide empirical evidence for the logical assumption that, given that there are billions of galaxies in the cosmos, and there are in turn billions of planets in these billions of galaxies, it would be reasonable to assume that on some of these planets, where conditions were hospitable for the evolution of organisms, there would be life as we know it on Earth, including even sentient beings who have self-consciousness, memory and the ability to communicate, some of whom would be more highly developed than us earthlings..
Even if Phoenix Lander were to come up empty-handed in Mars, the statistical chances of life on other planets – even life forms more evolved than us – in other galaxies would still be high.
The terra-centric universe that was the conventional wisdom of Christianity for 1,500 years would not be able to adequately explain evolved life on other planets in other galaxies.
This terra-centric universe was based on the flawed cosmology of Aristotle (384-322 BC) and Ptolemy (second century AD) who taught that Earth was the center of the universe around which revolved the moon and the Sun (which moved the fastest), the planets (which moved more slowly), and the stars (which moved the least.).
Beyond the stars was a region where nothing moved, nothing changed, where resided the Unmoved Mover, the Uncaused Cause, which Christian theology borrowed from Aristotle and concluded was God in Heaven.
The notion that Heaven was up there, somewhere, and conversely that Hell was down here, somewhere, is fixed in the Christian imagination,for most Christians, up to this day, even though astronomers Nicolaj Kopernik or Copernicus (1473-1543) of Poland and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) of Italy had disproved this cosmology, and taught, instead, that the Earth revolved around the Sun, not the other way around.
But the Medieval Church resisted this “heresy” vigorously. After all, the Resurrected Jesus is said in the New Testament to have “ascended” (up) to Heaven, and so did the Virgin Mary. In Dante Alighieri’s (1263-1321) Divine Comedy – an allegorical vision of the Christian afterlife – the author visited Paradiso or Heaven by first climbing (up) the highest mountain. Conversely, Dante visited Inferno or Hell by descending (down) into the bowels of the Earth. There are thousands, tens of thousands, of Christian art over the past 2,000 years that depicted Heaven as somewhere up there.
.The idea that Earth was not the center of the universe was so subversive of Christian orthodoxy that Galileo was summoned by the Inquisition, forced to recant his “heresy”, was ordered imprisoned (later commuted to house arrest), and his books banned. It was not until the year 2000, that the Church – through Pope John Paul II – apologized for its “errors in the last 2000 years, including the trial of Galileo..”
So, if Heaven is not “somewhere up there” beyond the stars, as the Early Fathers had inferred from Aristotle and Ptolemy and had taught for 16 centuries, where is it?
We were taught in Theology class at the Ateneo that Heaven was not a physical place that saints and deities ascended to but was a state of consciousness called a Beatific Vision that one attained through faith and good works, much like the nirvana that Buddhists – who do not subscribe to a personal God – believe in.
So, OK, since God and Heaven are not “up there,” what is? Nothing but more stars and more galaxies than were known in Aristotle’s time, in some of which other life forms most probably exist, including some that may be more highly developed than we earthlings are.
A Jesuit priest, Fr. Jose Gabriel Funes, who is head of the Vatican Observatory and a scientific adviser to Pope Benedict XVI, has recently expressed his opinion that life in other planets is a distinct possibility, but that this is not in conflict with faith in God. Such extra-terrestrial (ET) creatures would still be part of God’s Creation. (Reuters, May 16).
But Islam, which has a view of Creation similar to the Judeo-Christian tradition, would also claim that those ETs are part of Allah’s Creation. So if we should establish contact with ETs in the near future and it turns out, as is likely, that they have never heard of Jesus or Allah, who would have the franchise to “convert” them? Will it throw us earthlings back to the genocidal Crusades of the 11th to the 13th centuries? Just asking. *****
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