In my story, I would like to have a contemporary Mars Rover find not only evidence, but a mostly complete skeleton of a homo sapiens that perished around 50,000 years ago when it was exposed to the surface (due to a misguided, childish experiment by aliens).

As much as I do love Curiosity, Opportunity, and others; their abilities can barely scratch the surface (literally) of Mars. Although I'd entertain a near-future rover that can, say, explore the polar ice caps for a frozen skeleton, I'd prefer it to be one of our current champs.

So, how can a 50,000 year-old skeleton (or body) survive the elements to be found by our robot pals on Mars?

  • $\begingroup$ Look at the Atacama Desert as an example. $\endgroup$
    – Jake
    May 16 '15 at 3:25

Mars has excellent conditions for mummification.

There isn't much you actually have to do except leave a body on the surface. Mars will do the rest. The corpse will desiccate fairly quickly and will then hardly decompose over the centuries. With the very cold climate, minimal and dry atmosphere, and no microbial life there isn't much that will be able to decompose it.

The main issue will be wind erosion, but it's minor, and mummies have been found in less ideal environments. An example of these is seen in Antarctica, some seal mummies have been found on the surface that are as much as 2,600 years old. It's worth noting these are accidental mummifications, the animals simply died there and mummified naturally. They still have skin after all that time, the bones will last much longer.
As mentioned by Jake, the Atacama desert is another excellent example as it's used by NASA to simulate a Martian environment. Some of the mummies found there are almost 9,000 years old. Granted, those mummies were intentionally prepared, but clearly the environment is highly favorable for mummies.

Mars is better.

Earth mummies have active microbial life chipping away at them, Mars won't have that. The only microbial life will be that which was brought in the gut of the human, and it is not suited for survival in those conditions. The gut bacteria will be the last thing in the human to die, but it will die.

Aside from the small amount of wind, it's pretty similar to being a corpse in space. Finding a 50,000 year old skeleton or mummy on Mars would be shocking indeed, but not because we would have expected it to decay. If a human died on Mars in the distant past, it would actually be a surprise not to find the body.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks; I'm worried both about aeolian erosion and the permafrost freezing/melting. In addition, I don't know the effects of cosmic radiation over 50k years. How deep would bones need to be protected, and can our rovers stumble upon them? $\endgroup$
    – Mikey
    May 15 '15 at 21:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Mikey The mummified remains in the McMurdo Dry Valley experience winds of up to 200 mph. They actually cause a heating/cooling cycle as well. The winds are the main cause of erosion for the corpses, yet they stick around for thousands of years. If the corpse was sheltered from prevailing winds by a rock outcropping, 50,000 years of high preservation on the surface could be easily achieved. Cosmic radiation wouldn't be a problem, it might damage DNA, but it won't break down a corpse. $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    May 15 '15 at 21:37

It was all my fault. I sat frozen in my chair as the cameras swung widely around. Dr. Hoover had told me to stay away from the edge, but I'd seen something glitter and curiosity (no pun intended) had gotten the best of me. And now all I could do was pray and hope as I watched the rover roll and bounce down the hill.

Dust and rocks filled the camera, and I winced as I realized I'd caused a landslide as well. My hope that the rover would land miraculously upright and be recoverable seemed more remote than ever - it would almost surely be buried. My heart rose as the camera came to a stop, but then sank down again - the rover was at a nearly 90 degree angle, and was almost certainly stuck.

I sat forward and took in the scene carefully. It appeared now that a cave had partially collapsed - I wondered if maybe I hadn't actually gotten too close to the edge, that the weight of the rover had caused it to crumble. Maybe it would have happened to anyone. Dazedly I watched the camera pan around, and then focus near a white rock...

My shriek filled the room, and I fell out of my chair, gasping on the floor. My heart pounded in my chest and blood roared in my ears. It was impossible. My mind was playing tricks on me.

I stood back up on unsteady feet and braced against the desk, staring at the monitor. And the skull staring back at me. I lifted the phone with a trembling hand to call Dr. Hoover.

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    $\begingroup$ The drama gets ruined when we account for the 26 minute roundtrip time lag :) The speed of light is such a drag. $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    May 15 '15 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Samuel: Ugh. I've been reading too much fiction with FTL comms. It would need to be re-written for that, let me think about it. $\endgroup$ May 15 '15 at 19:49
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    $\begingroup$ No, I'm just joking. The rover automatically re-orienting its camera to be level with the ground, followed by automatic focus, is entirely plausible. Which would slowly bring the blurry skeleton into view after the crash, followed by a sudden sharp focus. $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    May 15 '15 at 19:54
  • $\begingroup$ Add to that the footage would be from the nav cams: if they don't normally record video, the impending risky maneuver prompts them to program that in. The sequence is sent and received in local morning, and it operates autonomously. The collapse still let the antenna point to the orbital relay, and standard "WTF" handing could be to include photos from all cameras. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    May 16 '15 at 12:37

I imagine the rover noticing a small rock coming out of the ground with different looks and different chemical composition, it analyzes and then discovers its just a small part of a bigger solid object just barely underground, then depending on what you want, the rover can see the skeleton through it and/or earth can sand a machine just to take it out from the ground, I picture something like this:

enter image description here

or something like this:

enter image description here

just imagine a skeleton instead of a mosquito

  • $\begingroup$ Where did the human sized chunk of amber come from? $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    May 15 '15 at 21:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Samuel amber? I said picture something like this. its a solid chemical composition different by anything seen by the rover. Quoting from question: "when it was exposed to the surface (due to a misguided, childish experiment by aliens)." it came from the experiments by aliens perhaps. $\endgroup$
    – adrian
    May 15 '15 at 22:07
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, well the picture is of a mosquito in amber, which would both have a solid chemical composition and certainly would be different than anything seen by the rover. It wasn't/isn't clear you're not talking about amber since "rocks" aren't translucent. Fair enough, it's a good way to preserve a corpse. $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    May 15 '15 at 22:11
  • $\begingroup$ well if the rover analyzed amber it would get results of chemical composition already seen in mars because amber its not a single element. I wasn't talking about amber just to be clear its just that a picture gives a better perspective. $\endgroup$
    – adrian
    May 15 '15 at 22:29
  • $\begingroup$ The chemical composition is not seen on Mars, there isn't amber there that we know of. Are you saying the 'rock' is made of elements unknown to science? $\endgroup$
    – Samuel
    May 15 '15 at 22:33

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