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Vatican probes life on Mars question

ROME (CNS): Engineers at the US space agency NASA weren’t the only people thrilled at the successful landing of the Spirit probe on Mars.

Vatican astronomers, too, were overjoyed and relieved at the robot’s safe touchdown on January 3.

Only three other exploratory probes have made it successfully onto the red planet.

The British-built Beagle 2 landed on Mars on December 25, but no radio signal had been received to indicate it survived.

“It’s an engineering success. A huge breakthrough,” Jesuit Father George Coyne, who is director of the Vatican Observatory, said of the Spirit landing.

The Spirit robot will sniff out signs of life or conditions that support life.

Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, an astronomer, planetary scientist and curator of the Vatican meteorite collection, said NASA scientists aimed the probe to land in a large crater that may have been a lake. The robot, he said, would look and test for minerals that would suggest the presence of water.

“Water is needed for life and such a discovery would open up all new questions as to is there life there now or had there been once upon a time,” said Br Consolmagno.

But Fr Coyne said there’s more at stake than just a mere search for other forms of life.

“What would be truly incredible would be to discover life on Mars that’s independent of life on Earth,” he said.

When asked what the theological impact of such a discovery would be, Fr Coyne laughed. ‘Ask the theologians. It would be very, very interesting.’

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