Phoenix has landed safely on Mars, to great exaltation. Now we're going to find out if there ever was life on Mars.
Why do we care so much?
Mind you, I don't object to scientific exploration for its own sake; we know a number of very useful and interesting things that we found out while just looking to see what was there. But we sent men to the Moon, and we've sent a number of exploring space craft to Mars, and we've landed three craft on Mars now, and the justification seems to be not, what does the place look like? but, is anybody else there?
So far, nobody else is there. I'll go farther and make a prediction, which the Phoenix team at JPL will be spending the next 10 years or so trying to disprove: nobody else ever was there. There has never been life on Mars. There certainly has never been our variety of life on Mars, the kind that's based on liquid water. And not on any of the other planets in this system either.
All our science fiction is based on the assumption that we're not alone. Writers have peopled "space" with a delightful and amazing population of "aliens", from Andre Norton's Zacathans to Larry Niven's K'zin to Anne McCaffrey's telepathic species and beyond (and I haven't read nearly as much sci-fi as some people), with one specification for all these unlikely creatures: we can talk to them.
Apparently, talking among ourselves isn't enough for us, despite the fact that we spend more time fighting each other than talking. Why would we think we'd do anything with "aliens" except fight them, given how we treat each other?
Based on the evidence I've seen, reading all the astronomy articles in Scientific American and other lay journals for 30 years, Ockham's Razor seems to imply that there isn't anyone else out there. We're asking these questions because of a long sequence of coincidences that produced a planet with enough water, and the right temperature range (most of the time), and the right chemicals, and so on, that over millions of years a mammalian species evolved which developed the ability to - ask questions. (And before you bring it up, no, I don't buy the argument that God created all this in 4004 B.C.) Most of the planets we've been able to observe so far are prima facie unable to support life - wrong temperature range, not enough carbon or oxygen, etc. Most of the stars we've been able to observe are prima facie unable to support life - too big, too hot, too small, too cool. Stars like our sun are a minority. They aren't rare, there are just a lot of other types.
In other words, we are unique, and we are alone, and we'd better learn how to get along with each other, because there isn't anybody else out there to get along with. As the "mindfulness" people say, wherever you go, there you are.
But it fascinates me that we're so convinced that we aren't alone, that we spend really large amounts of money and time trying to find "them." Even if, in the case of Phoenix, the definition of "them" would be some evidence the Mars may have supported liquid water in which some kind of single-celled life form may have lived long enough to reproduce for awhile.
Whatever it was, if it was, I guarantee we wouldn't have been able to talk to it.
Why are we so desperate to find "them"?? Do we think they have Answers that we don't have? Or do we just think that if "they" can survive on a planet, then we could move in and take it over from them? (An unfortunate but likely supposition; and in the case of the current Mars, patently absurd.)
If you really want to contemplate "life on Mars," go read Edgar Rice Burroughs' wonderful Mars series: John Carter, Warlord of Mars. They're great.