NASA’s Perseverance Rover is set to launch for a trip to Mars this week, another exciting step in our nation’s story of space exploration. This mission has a number of scientific goals. Most people will focus on this mission’s opportunity to gather knowledge on the challenges of future human expeditions to Mars. We all have visions of what life would be like on Mars, so their experiments testing a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere and identifying other resources (such as subsurface water) seem like the most exciting.
For me, I love to see the scientific process at work. This makes me interested in all of their experiments, but it especially makes me interested in the fact that they are digging into the same questions other missions have studied for the last 45 years. I think it is so extraordinary that our universe is SO COMPLICATED that we can study a single thing for almost 50 years. So what exactly are we still studying?
We are studying the soil from Mars. We want to know if there are any signs of past microbial life. Ever since NASA's first landing on Mars in 1975 with the Viking 1 lander, we’ve been running experiments on soil samples to test for signs of any previous life on the planet.
The Viking mission tested the soil in a number of different ways. Here is a graphic showing 3 of them.
Overall, these life-detection experiments produced surprising and contradictory results. The one that caused the “contradiction” is the Labeled Release experiment. Here’s a simpler diagram of it alone.
In this experiment, a nutrient solution is dropped into the Martian soil. The carbon in this nutrient solution is 14C. This means it has the same number of electrons and protons as regular Carbon-12, but it has 2 extra neutrons.
With extra neutrons, this element is deemed “radioactive”. This radioactivity means that the scientists could trace it. If there were any microorganisms in the soil, they would metabolize the nutrients and would release CO2 into the air. Since the nutrients only have 14C, the CO2 should have it too and this could be detected.
When this experiment was run, it showed that the Martian soil tested POSITIVE for metabolism—a sign that, on Earth, would almost certainly be interpreted as the presence of life. However, the other experiments found no trace of organic material, these results on earth would be interpreted as the absence of life. These results seem to be contradictory based on our assumptions and interpretations of the results. This very much confused the scientists, and the interpretation of the results are still debated to this day. The numbers are not debated, but how we view them and interpret them is. What we know about how chemicals work is limited by us only studying chemicals on Earth. That knowledge is limited.
The same way we look at chemistry on Mars by earthly standards, we also think of God by earthly standards. We are constantly searching to know more about Him, but the only way we know to describe Him is through the lens of our earthly lives. We can only explain him in things that we know. Some ways we describe Him are things like:
He is smarter than Einstein.
He is a greater father than our earthly fathers.
He is bigger than the galaxy.
The truth is that He is beyond our comprehension. All of these descriptions are pathetic attempts because we don’t even have words to describe all that He is. Our minds can’t even imagine how great our God is. Our view is limited.
This truth is so awe-inspiring to me. I love science because of its ability to exactly describe things in very clear and concise ways. The fact that there is something so beyond our ability to define is mind boggling. As our greatest scientists continue to explore the far reaches of the galaxy, I will spend this week in prayer praising God for how great He is. Greater than I can even imagine. I will tell Him how thankful I am that He is so great, so powerful, that He can do anything, and that with that power He chooses to love and care for me. What a beautiful thing to know. I hope that you will join me this week in praising God and spending time in awe of his greatness.