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An interesting article on the World Economic Forum website talks about the benefits of exploring Mars:

There are also reasons for visiting Mars that transcend the purely scientific. Sending humans to Mars is a challenge that will spark innovation and the development of new technologies and capabilities. It has been estimated that every dollar spent at NASA adds about four dollars to the American economy. As President John F. Kennedy once said, we don’t do things like putting a man on the moon “because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”

These efforts have real benefits for life on Earth. Indeed, many of the recent technologies developed for space already have practical applications on Earth. The water purification system used on the ISS is currently helping to provide clean water in remote regions. Work on NASA’s new Space Launch System and Orion capsule has led to faster ways to charge batteries, and to the development of advanced manufacturing techniques and lighter aircraft structures.

However they don't specifically mention the practical benefits of a potential discovery of life outside our planet. Assuming we can find some simple form of life on Mars or Titan, how would the median human back on Earth stand to benefit, at least in the long-term? I do understand the positive impact of developing new technology to search for life but those benefits would be present regardless of whether or not we end up finding anything.

In other words, between two universes where in one humanity finds a simple form of life on Mars and one where it doesn't find it, how would the humans in the first universe be better off 50 years after said discovery?

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  • $\begingroup$ Instead of "What would be the...?" would "Are there any...?" be more appropriate, since as far as I can tell it hasn't been established that there would be nor that anyone has said there would? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jul 30 '21 at 23:57
  • $\begingroup$ @uhoh well there are numerous benefits from all other aspects of space exploration. I’m figuring life on Mars could also have some? $\endgroup$ Jul 31 '21 at 2:04
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    $\begingroup$ Related, but on the Astronomy StackExchange: Is there any practical use for astronomy? $\endgroup$ Jul 31 '21 at 8:07
  • $\begingroup$ ...Practically, it would make a lot of money for publishing companies because a significant portion of all scientific textbooks would need to be updated and reprinted for proper correctness. The economic impact from all the universities, schools, and private individuals buying new books would be significant--probably even in the billions worldwide. $\endgroup$
    – Dragongeek
    Jul 31 '21 at 11:09
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    $\begingroup$ Biochemistry is a big deal, so exobiochemistry would be a big deal too. $\endgroup$
    – Wyck
    Aug 1 '21 at 4:53
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One of the challenges of trying to live on another planet is finding or producing the essentials for human life there rather than having to ship everything. If we can free water, oxygen and building materials from regolith or rock from that planet then we might be able to be self-sustaining.

If we find life on another planet it may have figured out how to do some of that for us, or at least make some of these things more accessible. What this form of life produces as a result may be useful to us, for instance conversion or production of gases, energy storage like sugars or hydrocarbon chains. In other words the best case is we can eat it and/or breathe what it produces, next best is we may be able to convert it into something usable through a process by using the organism as feedstock or collecting its waste products, failing that we can study it to understand how its chemistry operates, then use that knowledge to make use of the local materials.

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    $\begingroup$ The goal to colonize another planet with humans may be just hype (to sell more heavy rockets?). At least, I don't see an urgent need. Trying to be as much self-sufficient as possible for a few scientists to perform in-situ explorations of Mars, in a time-frame of 50 years, why not? Similarly perhaps, to what we have been doing in Antartica. $\endgroup$
    – Ng Ph
    Aug 1 '21 at 10:19
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    $\begingroup$ We have to look at this as a long term thing @NgPh. We probably won't have a real colony on another planet in our lifetimes, it may be many generations before it happens as the technology to do it is challenging and it's very expensive. Over time we will build up the capability to do it, and some of it may very well be useful here to surmount the challenges we will have in the next century. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Aug 1 '21 at 21:14
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    $\begingroup$ @NgPh considering how quickly we are destroying Earth, it may be considered urgent. Then we have some time to figure out what to do, before we destroy the new planet as well. (Actually, there is nothing to destroy on a lifeless planet. Apart from the temperature, conditions on post-global-warming-absolute-worst-case-apocalypse Earth may as well be Mars) $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    Aug 2 '21 at 12:35
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    $\begingroup$ @JonathanReez On the contrary, if that is the goal of humanity, the sooner it becomes extinct the better. $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Aug 2 '21 at 13:17
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    $\begingroup$ The idea that we should colonize other planets to escape global warming is almost comical in its misapprehension. If we had the level of technology to completely reshape the biosphere of an uninhabitable planet like that, it would make much more sense to start with our own. $\endgroup$
    – Daniel B
    Aug 2 '21 at 18:26
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There would be intangible benefits and potentially tangible benefits.

The intangible benefit for some would simply be the knowledge that Earth is not the only cosmic ball of rock to host life. "We are not alone". For some, that would be a psychological boost. For others not so.

As to the potentially tangible benefits, that depends on what is found and what further research into the newly discovered life form reveals. Which may or may not become apparent until much time has elapsed.

We humans have always been looking for something that would improve or prolong our lives, be it a medical breakthrough, new materials, a new form of food or energy, more efficient ways to achieve "something". Many such discoveries were accidental; we're looking at one thing and something else gets noticed elsewhere. An example of this was the discovery of squalamine - a compound found in dog sharks that had the potential to treat viruses and treat diseases like dengue fever, yellow fever and hepatitis B, C and D . The same could happen if life is discovered elsewhere, particularly exotic life, if may contain a compound that could be beneficial to us.

We don't know, and when dealing with unknowns it is impossible to put limitations such as, "how would we be better off 50 years after said discovery?". It may happen sooner, it may take longer, it may never happen. There's always and element of serendipity.

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    $\begingroup$ I can add that it's the discovery of "simple" forms of life called bacteria that allows us today to live that long to die mostly of cancer, heart strokes, ... rather than of tuberculosis and cholera, ... And that took much more than 50 years to reap the benefit. It's the discovery that we are not at the center of the Universe that opens the way to artificial satellites, which today are pervasive in average Joe's life. $\endgroup$
    – Ng Ph
    Jul 31 '21 at 16:55
  • $\begingroup$ Not sure if squalamine is a good example since apparently it went nowhere. $\endgroup$
    – Dan M.
    Aug 2 '21 at 15:16
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There would be significant philosophical impact in that mankind is not alone in the universe, but it is impossible to give a clear answer into what real physical benefits might be gained, as it would depend on what was found. It might also take more than 50 years to see the full benefit of such a basic discovery.

It is a bit like asking: between two universes where in one Columbus found a sea route to the Far East and another one where he didn’t find it, how would the humans in the first universe be better off 50 years after said discovery? The result was unexpected and provided a whole new continent rather than a route to the Far East. Who could have predicted everything from the conquistadors to the potato based on that question?

But here are some possibilities: Finding life on Mars could shine a light in an area that is impossible for us to access biochemically. This is due to the near infinite possibilities of chemistry and knowing where to look in that vastness for useful and interesting compounds. We are limited by the terrestrial biochemistries as a guide and inspiration.

Potentially a whole new Martian biochemistry could show us thousands of new genes, enzymes, proteins and other chemicals and new synthetic pathways. All honed by millions of years of evolution to specific purposes any of which might be of use to mankind.

Perhaps a new way to fix nitrogen or an easier way to harness photosynthesis or clean plastic or heavy metal pollution or produce some useful chemical more cheaply, more efficiently or at lower energy cost.

It could provide as much insight as other great discoveries from the past such as the discovery of penicillin, DNA, the transistor or the realization that the speed of light is constant. Or it might not we don’t know. It is also possible that Martian life was very similar to terrestrial life and shared a relatively recent common ancestor (no novel abiogenisis just panspermia). In which case the impact might be a lot less dramatic.

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    $\begingroup$ Columbus discovery of the Americas may not be a good analogy. Columbus gave an attractive return-of-investment argument to those financing him (which turned out to be a wrong one). He didn't put forward the possibility of discovering a New World as a main reason for funding his first expedition (I think). $\endgroup$
    – Ng Ph
    Aug 1 '21 at 10:03
  • $\begingroup$ The point I was making was that such ventures into the unknown often produce unexpected discoveries. The discovery of life on Mars would present a vast unexplored continent of unknown biochemistry any part of which might present useful applications $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Aug 1 '21 at 16:48
  • $\begingroup$ this is indeed true. But I think it is rather weak if you have in front of you an average Joe (or a politician) who wants to know the ROI of the funding you ask for. There is even a theory that says that Columbus knew the existence of a New World. But he was smart enough to know what to sell to Queen Isabella. $\endgroup$
    – Ng Ph
    Aug 1 '21 at 20:41
  • $\begingroup$ I think the question was asking what benefits the average Joe might see rather than how he might be persuaded to agree to it. But you are right it is not the way to interest the average Joe. The theory that Columbus knew of the New World sounds unlikely. A bit like the theory that the world is flat... $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Aug 2 '21 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ the theory sounds incredible, but it is backed by 2 serious facts. The 1st is in the "MoU" which stipulates that he shall be "Viceroy" of all discovered territories, and likewise for his offsprings. The 2nd is that, in the 1st expedition, he packed just enough food to reach the Americas. This gross error is surprising, even with the sea faring knowledge of his time. Joe, being Joe, won't "see" any benefit for himself beyond 50 years. $\endgroup$
    – Ng Ph
    Aug 2 '21 at 21:07
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The answer as to whether the discovery of a second instance of life would affect Joe Average is "quite possibly". Although why this is so is not immediately apparent. For an example, take a major scientific event that actually happened recently. On August 17, 2017, the LIGO gravitational wave sensor detected a gravitational wave event due to the distant merging of two neutron stars. Within seconds, NASA's Fermi satellite detected gamma rays from the same event. (1) This was an historic day in the world of physics. Among other things, it confirmed that gravitational waves do, in fact, travel at the speed of light. However, like the possible discovery of an independent instance of life, it is not immediately apparent how this might affect Joe Average.

There are two reasons for this. First, in general, scientific discoveries do not affect the average person. Rather, it is the technology that the discovery enables. Second, an individual scientific discovery may, or may not, enable new technology itself. Sometimes it's information from two or more discoveries combined that enable new technology. For example, Dennis Gabor discovered and documented the idea of wavefront reconstruction in 1947. (2) It was only after the discovery of the laser two decades later that holography became practical.

It's the sum of technologies derived from many scientific discoveries that will define the possible future for all of us. Would technology derived from the discovery of a new form of life be part of it? We might have to wait a while to find out.

(1) https://www.si.edu/newsdesk/releases/astronomers-see-light-show-associated-gravitational-waves

(2) https://ethw.org/Milestones:Invention_of_Holography,_1947

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This question highlights the challenge in explaining “Average Joe” the long-term benefits of scientific researches. I can imagine the difficulty a NASA representative may have in the US Congress when Average Joe asks why part of his tax money goes to researches whose potential returns he can’t benefit in his lifetime (the explanation for the “50 years” time-frame in the question, perhaps?). By analogy, if we ask an egoistic young person to spare the equivalent of one ice cream per year for the prospect that, in X years, we may find a cure to Alzheimer, we likely get a negative answer.

Further more, we can ask ourselves, if by chance scientists establish that there is (or had been) another form of life in the Solar system, would there be fanatics disputing such a potential discovery?

We may try to address also the question, why several centuries after Galileo, there still are people questioning the value of answering the enigma of: are we unique in the Universe (assuming they accept that we are not at the center of it)? And should we blame ourselves that there could be dogmatic people defending the concept that it is a heretical undertaking to digg into this question?

An excellent question, with many ramifications indeed. I am up-voting it.

Oh, I forgot to answer the question.

  • For an "Average Joe" it is difficult to demonstrate a "practical" benefit.

  • But if we remove the “average Joe” constraint then it would be a slam dunk.

For a college-level audience, take as illustration the discovery of bacteria and the 200 years it takes to understand the mechanism of deadly diseases.

For a higher level audience, just take the example of the discovery of DNA and the time it takes to develop the gene splicing technology, which technology is the enabler for developping the m-RNA vaccines for COVID-19. Say thanks to the "simple" E. Coli, please.

  • More interesting yet to debate on, if we remove the constraint of Mars.

No need for me to teach anybody on SPACE SE, that there are strong evidences of water in liquid form, on many moons of the giant planets: Triton, Europa, Enceladus, … Now, if the conditions for life to exist (by our current understanding of course) has been established elsewhere and we do find life there, I doubt that anybody can step-out and dispute the effort to arrive at such a discovery (but I am open to debate here on SE). But I extend this reflection by stating that, if we can’t find any sign of life, where according to our current science we think it should exist, it would be equally an exciting giant leap for our understanding the story of life.

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  • $\begingroup$ “I can imagine the difficulty a NASA representative may have in the US Congress when Average Joe asks why part of his tax money goes to researches whose potential returns he can’t benefit in his lifetime” Unfortunately average Joe is not best placed to judge what is most beneficial. Average Joe might well shut down all basic science research, all defense spending and anything else they didn’t like, understand or deem profitable to themselves, probably with far reaching results in the long term. $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Jul 31 '21 at 17:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Slarty, don't underestimate the political power of average Joe, especially when you have demagogs and/or dogmatic people looking for power. $\endgroup$
    – Ng Ph
    Jul 31 '21 at 17:29
  • $\begingroup$ @NgPh That is a strong argument against democracy. And I agree with it. $\endgroup$
    – dotancohen
    Aug 1 '21 at 14:54
  • $\begingroup$ @dotancohen, not against, but it is well-known that direct democracy is fragile. That's why we see mostly indirect democracies. $\endgroup$
    – Ng Ph
    Aug 1 '21 at 16:41
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If life is found on Mars, I would be prepared for the possibility that it came from Earth; that perhaps some early bacteria survived being propelled into space from an asteroid impact or volcanic eruption. In this case, the abiogenesis event(s) likely happened here on Earth. We're still alone in the universe, it's just the crucible of life consists of more than one planet in our solar system, and that humans weren't the first interplanetary travellers.

But if we find life on Titan, (or any other world beyond the inner solar system) then it's very hard to imagine how the same kind of thing (life from Earth reaching Titan) could have happened -- it's nearly inconceivable that any process that obeys the laws of physics could have allowed this to happen (volcanic ejecta doesn't reach the outer solar system, for example). So if life is found on Titan, then it's likely from a different abiogenesis event; that life found a completely different way to exist from how it came to be on Earth. That's supremely, and profoundly interesting, both scientifically and philosophically. Getting a peek at what manner of life that is and how it came to be, or even how it exists at all would inspire a deluge of further questions.

Are Titanic lifeforms similar to Terrestrial lifeforms? Are they carbon-based with DNA, etc.? If so, then what is it that's so special about our biochemistry that it came about separately in two different places? It suggests that life, OUR kind of life, is perhaps a stable convergence point for the actions of the cosmos. It would provide huge evidence that life is a natural, and not-so-uncommon by-product of the workings of the universe, and we would be justified in seeking it out elsewhere, with hopes that it may be similar to us too. And if life were found in places like near hydrothermal vents on Europa, then it would dramatically redefine the Goldilocks zone, and would broaden the domain in which we should be seeking out new lifeforms. If earth-like life is so common so as to be found elsewhere in our own solar system, then a Star Trek-like universe may actually await us.

But if that extraterrestrial life is different from terrestrial life, perhaps not even carbon-based, then what is it like? It stands to reason that observing that truly alien life would reveal a biochemical process previously unknown to humanity, with unforetold potential for applications. It could lead to a better understanding of earth life just to have something else to compare to it. Or, in the best case, it could directly lead to a new frontier of exobiochemistry and the benefits could potentially be as precipitous as traditional biochemistry was to the scientific renaissance or industrial revolution.

Whether people will turn that into something that is better for humans in the next 50 years will be entirely for the next generation to bring to bare. But there's decent precedent to suggest that people will do both good and bad things with their knowledge.

And if the alien life turns out to be intelligent, then your guess is as good as mine as to how that will turn out for humans. We've certainly put some thought into it with a large body of science fiction.

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    $\begingroup$ "hard to imagine how the same kind of thing (life from Earth reaching Titan)"... Titan is only about 20% further from Earth than Mars (as measured by energy of impulse on surface needed to get stuff there), so that is virtually no consideration. The nature of the life would be relevant though. Earth life, all earth life, is liquid-water-based. On Titan water is a hard rock that mountains are built of. some of Titan's volcanoes are hot enough to spew molten water, most just manage molten Ammonia. $\endgroup$ Aug 1 '21 at 6:00
  • $\begingroup$ @PcMan, This paper seems to identify Triton as very good place for Life. $\endgroup$
    – Ng Ph
    Aug 1 '21 at 10:26
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    $\begingroup$ @NgPh yep. Triton is like Europa, minus the radiation. And as with Europa, earth life might thrive in the oceans. However the above answer, and my comment, related to Titan, which is a whole different kettle of.. frozen hydrocarbons. $\endgroup$ Aug 1 '21 at 11:27
  • $\begingroup$ @PcMan, my bad. Of course, Titan, not Triton. $\endgroup$
    – Ng Ph
    Aug 1 '21 at 12:32
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Before we discuss the impact of finding life on other celestial bodies we should discuss the impact of merely existing extraterrestrial life.

That impact could very well be detrimental. The chances may be slim, but it is conceivable that some alien microbial life forms could survive on Earth.

Microbes from Mars could find some desert Earth habitats appealing (if they can or learn to deal with the disinfectant called oxygen). Microbes from Enceladus' subsurface oceans could conceivably thrive in some underwater habitats or aquifers on Earth, etc. If an alien life form became an invasive species on Earth the consequences would be unpredictable and could include extinction events, like those caused by invasive species from Earth in Australia. Michael Chrichton's Andromeda Strain was a dramatization of such a scenario.

Apart from the direct low-probability, high-risk danger the life forms themselves would pose, learning about them might have negative and positive consequences.

Negative effects could be:

  • Rigorous safety measures for objects returning from space, because of a fear of introducing foreign life forms into Earth's biosphere. For example, direct splash-downs would perhaps be considered too risky.

Potential benefits would be:

  • The added knowledge that there is extraterrestrial life, if we consider knowledge a value in itself.
  • Safety measures imposed on returning craft could prevent a catastrophic contamination event.
  • From the perspective of space enthusiasts a beneficial result would be that most likely space research would intensify, in order to learn more about extraterrestrial life: Better funding, more telescopes, more and better equipped missions to explore the solar system.
  • The realization that we are not alone could have a philosophical benefit. It could make our self-image more humble.
  • Conceivably, the realization that extraterrestrial life could be a threat to mankind might have beneficial political implications: Like all external threats it may unite the ones under threat, in this kind all of mankind.
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