Congressman Asks NASA if There's an Ancient Civilization on Mars. For Real

Updated | A Republican congressman from California on Tuesday asked members of a NASA panel if there had been ancient civilizations on Mars.

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Addressing a NASA scientist testifying before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher said, "You have indicated that Mars was totally different thousands of years ago," according to a video posted to YouTube. "Is it possible that there was a civilization on Mars thousands of years ago?"

A location on Mars associated with the best-selling novel and Hollywood movie “The Martian.” This area is in the Acidalia Planitia region, and in the novel and the movie it is the landing site of a crewed mission named Ares 3. University of Arizona/NASA/Reuters

In his answer, Ken Farley, a project scientist on NASA's Mars 2020 Rover mission team, corrected Rohrabacher by saying the evidence shows that Mars was different billions—not thousands—of years ago. He added, "There is no evidence that I'm aware of."

Rohrabacher, who is vice chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology and has also served as a member of the Space and Aeronautics subcommittee, pressed Farley about his inquiry, asking him if he would "rule that out."

Farley responded, "I would say that is extremely unlikely."

Ken Grubbs, communications director for Rohrabacher, tells Newsweek that the congressman was trying to reach a definitive answer on a question "he gets from far and wide, presumably because he sits on the space committee." He added, "It's apparent that many of those covering it didn't hear the wink in his voice."

Farley was one of a few space experts testifying before the House committee about missions to other planets. Rohrabacher's inquiry came after Farley's testimony that the fourth planet from the sun had lakes and rivers, and perhaps even a huge northern ocean, until about 3.6 billion years ago, reported.

In a study published in June in the journal Science, researchers concluded that Mars would have had the right conditions for life to survive for around 700 million years, between 3.8 billion and 3.1 billion years ago. Scientists analyzed rocks from the Gale crater to discover how the planet's climate changed from a cold one to a warm, temperate one in which life may have thrived. Their research showed that the climate underwent two major transitions.

NASA has made landing humans on Mars a high priority of its exploration programs. Under bipartisan legislation in 2010, the U.S. space agency pledged to develop the capabilities to make that goal a reality by the 2030s.

Correction: An earlier version of his story misstated the number of years when Mars had the right conditions for life to survive, according to researchers. That period was about 700 million years.