Is there life on Mars?

To this day, many scientists and curious minds have been trying to answer a question that David Bowie asked back in 1971. Is there life on Mars? Not yet, Dr. Niamh Shaw, who is on her personal mission to get to space, said during the virtual Dublin Bowie Festival.

February is a much anticipated month for Mars lovers, as three missions are arriving on the Red Planet shortly, and they will help us understand Mars better than ever before.

What was happening in 1971 when Bowie asked this question in terms of space exploration?

“What was happening in 1971 in terms of space exploration? We still had some Apollo missions, Apollo 14 and Apollo 15. The last Apollo mission was in 1972, so it was kind of coming to an end. So there were still a lot of space activities and human space explorations. In terms of Mars, there were a lot of probes. In 1971, NASA was involved in a series of Mariner missions. Mariner 9 was one of the successful missions,” Shaw said. 

She, like many others, has been fascinated by space and Mars since childhood. Shaw is on a personal mission to get to space. Her preparation for this journey involved her joining a simulated Mars mission at the Mars Desert Research Station in southern Utah and the D-MARS facility in Ramon Crater, Israel.

Therefore, the Dublin Bowie festival asked her to answer that eternal question, ‘Is there life on Mars?’

Indicators of life

“It’s curious that Bowie was looking for life on Mars, thinking about the existence of another species possibly. That’s something that we’ve always been fascinated with,” Shaw said.

There are possible indicators of life in its simplest forms on Mars, and there are markers suggesting that life was present on Mars many years ago.

“The Curiosity Rover, which has been on Mars for 3000 days now, has sent back information of ancient water, and usually where there’s water, there’s life in some shape or form,” she said.

Niamh Shaw. Photo:

And this year is going to be a 'massive year for Mars'. Shaw reminded the three missions are arriving shortly to Mars. United Arab Emirates’ Hope will be orbiting Mars. And there are two landers - one from China and a 'massive one' from NASA. NASA’s Perseverance Rover is going to be landing on Mars in mid February.

“So February is going to be a really interesting month for Mars,” Shaw said.

On average, the temperature on Mars is about minus 60 degrees Celsius (-76°F), and the planet has an extremely thin atmosphere that is rich in carbon dioxide.

“It isn’t very habitable for humans. (...) But with these three missions, particularly the Perseverance Rover, because it’s going to be taking samples and returning them to Earth for us to look at, we probably will know more. Once we get a human mission to Mars, we will start to answer the mysteries and answer for ourselves, “Is there life on Mars?” Shaw explained.

But until then, all we can do is ponder that question and think about it here from Earth, she added.

“Mars is slightly smaller than Earth. That’s why its gravity is slightly less than ours. We’ve always been fascinated with Mars because, I think, it’s a planet that is near us and seems to have a surface very similar to ours, and an atmosphere of carbon dioxide, which is similar to ours, in comparison to Venus's atmosphere, which is very strange indeed,” she said.

Niamh Shaw
Niamh Shaw. Photo:

Since the Apollo missions to the moon, we’ve had a few space stations, the International Space Station being the most recent one. “That’s been the main focus of efforts in terms of human space exploration,” Shaw said.

At the moment, a lot of international partners are now very interested in sending their probes to different planets across our solar system. China will be the second country to have a lander on Mars.

A human mission to Mars will be set in the 2030s at the earliest. “Until then, there’s going to be a lot of missions to go to collect samples for us back on Earth and explore. So that’s a very exciting time in space exploration,” she said.

The waste of water

In 2017, Shaw lived in southern Utah for over two weeks as if she was on Mars - with limited water, food, energy, no showers, and a requirement to ‘suit up’ in space suits.

The surrounding Utah deserts resembled the surface of Mars. Shaw and other crew members had to live like astronauts - with limited supplies of food and water. Many people had been to simulators before her, but she felt that a human experience was missing. She wanted to share her human experience as much as scientific discoveries.

Scientific work on the simulation included experiments of growing food on Mars. And they proved that it is possible to do that if necessary. EVAs (Extra Vehicular Activities), which loosely translates to an outside expedition, took up most of the time. People were cold, and their movements were restricted by the heavy suits that tired them out very quickly.

Tiresome missions, while also having to save food and water, let Shaw and her fellow participants experience the life of an astronaut. Which, as it turns out, is not a glamorous one, at all. For example, to save water, they could flush the toilet only for “number two, not number ones.”

“These places are important because we have a lot to understand, a lot to learn if we are ever to send humans to Mars,” Shaw said.

Panorama of Mars surface. Elements of this image furnished by NASA. (c) Shutterstock

After the simulation, they went for breakfast together in a canteen nearby, and it felt like a Ritz for them, with plenty of good coffee, pancakes, and bacon. And then Shaw… went to the toilet.

“And then I left it. And I used to flush the toilet for only number twos, it became the way I lived, and I realized that I couldn’t do that anymore, I had to flush the toilet for number ones, or it would be rude. When I did, and I’ll never forget the shock of the pressure of the water that came out and the amount of water that came out just to flush a few hundred milliliters of my urine,” she explained.

To this day, Shaw still struggles with flushing toilets too frequently because she still thinks of the water waste.

“It made me reflect on the sustainability message,” she said.

So, is there life on Mars, Niamh?

“Not yet. But, I think, we could live on Earth as if we are on Mars and understand ourselves better by having that experience, and also understand better who we are as humans on Earth, and perhaps reflecting on being better citizens and taking better care of our planet,” said Niamh.

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