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Presently, Earth is the only known location where life exists in the Universe. This year the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to three astronomers who proved, almost 20 years ago, that planets are common around stars beyond the solar system. Life comes in various forms, from cell-phone-toting organisms like humans to the ubiquitous micro-organisms that inhabit almost every square inch of the planet Earth, affecting almost everything that happens on it. It will likely be some time before it is possible to measure or detect life beyond the solar system, but the solar system offers a host of sites that might get a handle on how hard it is for life to start.

Mars is at the top of this list for two reasons. First, it is relatively close to Earth compared to the moons of Saturn and Jupiter (which are also considered good candidates for discovering life beyond Earth in the solar system, and are targeted for exploration in the coming decade). Second, Mars is extremely observable because it lacks a thick atmosphere like Venus, and so far, there are pretty good evidence that Mars' surface temperature and pressure hovers around the point liquid water -- considered essential for life -- can exist. Further, there is good evidence in the form of observable river deltas, and more recent measurements made on Mars' surface, that liquid water did in fact flow on Mars billions of years ago.

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Category: Science