It’s not as well known as his Robert Langdon books (like The Da Vinci Code), but Dan Brown once wrote a novel about scientists that may or may not have found evidence of alien life in a meteorite found buried in the Arctic Circle. And now, scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are taking a page from Deception Point and looking earthward for evidence of alien life, rather than looking to the stars.
A group of 25 scientists from Wisconsin are part of a consortium that is funded by NASA. The group is tasked with studying rocks that are billions of years old, looking for information that might help guide the search for life on Mars and elsewhere. The evidence they seek is called “biosignatures,” footprints of biological activity like certain elements or isotopes that would indicate the presence of ancient life. Scientists also hope to find single-celled organisms in the samples.
Even if the project does not uncover evidence of extraterrestrial life, it is helping scientists learn more about our own planet. The team has uncovered Earth microbes that existed billions of years ago, before oxygen was present in the atmosphere. These tiny life forms relied more on iron than on sunlight!
The research will be fed to the Curiosity rover, now studying the surface of Mars, and will be used to prepare future Mars missions as well.
Even if there aren’t little green men up there, this hunt for alien life will help us better understand how life evolves and when we are ready to explore beyond the solar system, it will give us valuable information as to how to look for traces of life on worlds far distant from our own. We will, to echo the words of a famous TV show, seek out new life… and perhaps even new civilizations…