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NASA Mars rover: What if we find signs of life? (+video)

If NASA's Mars rover, Curiosity, safely touches down on Sunday night, it will begin searching for organic molecules in the Red Planet's soil. What would happen if the rover found something?

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But if all the Martians we find are long dead, we might never know whether they were our cousins or not. It makes all the difference, in terms of understanding our place in the cosmos. If life arose just once, then the possibility remains that it could be exceedingly rare in the universe, Pavlov said. But if it arose twice in the same solar system, "then that would tell us that life is extremely common." [If We Discover Aliens, What's Our Protocol for Making Contact?]

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Not alone

As for how the discovery of Martian microbes would impact the average human, "we've done this experiment before," Shostak said. In 1996, the headline on the front page of the New York Times exclaimed, "Clues in Meteorite Seem to Show Signs of Life on Mars Long Ago," after NASA scientists incorrectly concluded that they had found microscopic fossils in a meteorite denoted ALH84001, which originated on Mars.

So, how did people react to the news?

"The public was very interested, but I can't say there was a sudden outbreak of world peace, or people rioting in the streets," Shostak said. "I don't think it would change day-to-day behavior. The long-term consequences are a little less predictable, because it affects religious belief if Earth isn't all that special."

At the very least, alien life would resurrect the evolution versus creationism debate, said Jacob Haqq-Misra, a research scientist with the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, a nonprofit research institute. If Martian microbes contain DNA, a telltale sign that they're our ancestors, Christian fundamentalists' sentiment that we're far too special to have descended from monkeys might be repurposed toward denying the possibility of our descent from Martian microbes. "The philosophical and religious implications of microbial life are easy to ignore, because the discovery of microbes does not necessarily imply that human beings are any more or less rare," said Haqq-Misra, an astrobiologist formerly at Penn State.

We're not going to find intelligent, communicative beings on the Red Planet. So, ultimately, although Martian microbes have big implications for scientists and philosophers, Haqq-Misra said the rest of the world will sooner or later "lose interest."

Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover or Life's Little Mysteries @llmysteries. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

Copyright 2012 Lifes Little Mysteries, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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