Last month, humanity got a small break from the humdrum reality of lockdown life on Earth to celebrate otherworldly scientific achievement:
The Perseverance rover successfully landed on the Jezero Crater of Mars on February 18, 2021. Events like these always boggle my mind with their sheer human scientific ingenuity - cool enough on its own - but I also enjoyed this chance to contemplate the existence of astrobiology, a.k.a. one of my favorite science fiction tropes ever: aliens! The Perseverance’s mission is to “seek signs of ancient life and collect samples of rock and regolith (broken rock and soil) for possible return to Earth.” Besides the aliens (!), equally sci-fi worthy goals of the mission include technological demonstration of the rover’s equipment for future missions to Mars, as well as geological exploration of the planet. As the Perseverance explores the terrain, the mission’s team will assign names to the geological features it encounters in Navajo, in cooperation with the Navajo Nation.
The Perseverance’s hunt for traces of long-extinct Martian microorganisms inspired me to think about the history of our search for extraterrestrial life (SETI) and the history of our attempts to contact this life. Although we do not anticipate reciprocal communication on this mission, I would consider the search for evidence of life to be a kind of contact in itself. On a somewhat silly note, March seems an auspicious month to think about Mars and SETI, as the month of March in French is “mars,'' and World Contact Day is celebrated on March 15th. On a more serious note, I wondered what threads of the scientifically grounded story of our search for life and contact might be lurking in our photo collections. Let’s take a look.