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Are We Alone? How Water On Mars Can Help Us Find Out

written by: Jason C. Chavis•edited by: RC Davison•updated: 8/31/2011

The search for water on Mars has been a long one. It has taken us years to discover overwhelming evidence showing water flowing on the red planet. One challenge NASA has today, however, is convincing the populace that this discovery is worthwhile and quite possibly interesting.

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    Water Everywhere...

    Warm Season Flows in Newton Crater It seems like every year, the media inundates us with a barrage of information about the existence of water on Mars. Nearly every time NASA or some other space agency lands a probe or orbits a satellite, they find evidence that supports different levels of water on the red planet. Some of these come in the form of frozen craters, erosion from flowing rivers or simply an increased level of moisture in the atmosphere. Without fail, major news agencies report on it as if it is some giant breakthrough, weighing reader and viewer reaction to see if they should bother doing a follow-up story. While my first reaction is to blame the media and its perceived lack of interest in an ever-changing story, I have come to grips over the past couple years that just as much responsibility rests in the hands of the consumer.

    Why, you may ask, do I care so much if a disinterested public fails to understand what this truthfully means? Because it could be the greatest discovery humans have ever uncovered.

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    There May Be Water on the Red Planet...Again

    Condensation on Phoenix The most recent example of scientists releasing information about water on Mars came on August 4, 2011. Images gathered by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showed that water flow was possible during the warmer months on the red planet. According to NASA, research conducted by the craft reveals that dark markings appear on sloped areas created by small channels of water. These are called recurring slope linae (RSL) and appear in the southern latitudes when temperatures range from -9.4°F to 98.6°F (-23°C to 37°C).

    This information comes on the heels of the Phoenix Mars Polar Lander. In 2008, NASA announced that the probe identified water ice on the planet. Phoenix also possibly developed water droplets on the landing struts. However, this is not confirmed and, at present, NASA has no comment about the picture showing this development.

    Before this mission, the Martian rovers Spirit and Opportunity also seemed to identify water evidence in rocks and possibly a lake bed. The search for water continues , rearing its head every time humans send a mission to Mars.

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    How Did We Get Here?

    Although the human obsession with Mars began long ago, it really came into popular culture in the late 1800s. Much of the intrigue with water on Mars stems from the work of Giovanni Shiaparelli. In 1877, he observed a series of lines on Mars, which he outlined graphically for the public. He referred to these lines as “canali". This translated to English as canals, which prompted much of the populace to believe that some culture built waterways on the planet.

    Through the work of other astronomers and scientists, the canals prompted additional speculation regarding a civilization existing on the red planet. Conjecture from all manner of occupations began to dabble in the Martian culture. Many theories were created to describe how the Martians lived and survived on the smaller world so far from the Sun.

    Some of the most popular descriptions were developed by famous fiction writers of the time, forever changing our picture of Martians and the red planet in general. Books such as “War of the Worlds" by H.G. Wells changed the dynamic of these fictional beings, bringing them into the realm of possible invaders. This continued with motion pictures, comic books and trading cards through the early 20th century. We're all familiar with the terrorism that Orson Wells' “War of the Worlds" radio presentation created in 1938. Scientists speculated on the size of the Martian civilization, creating an image of little green men or some other humanoids thriving either above or underground with a warlike or peaceful community, possibly more intelligent than us. It's important to remember, however, that this speculation was based on almost no scientific evidence whatsoever.

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    Mars Proves to Be a Bust

    By the time space flight became a reality, taking a journey to Mars was a major priority. At this time, scientists were not necessarily looking specifically for water, but for signs of life in general. The moment when society's fictional vision of Mars changed from a functional alien world to a desolate landscape occurred on July 14, 1965. The Mariner 4 space probe successfully performed a flyby on the red planet, providing humans with the first glimpse of an alien world. Unfortunately, for all those scientists and creative fiction writers, Mars did not appear to have an advanced civilization. It did not have an advanced series of canals. In fact, it looked very much like a dead world not too far removed from our own moon.

    Collectively, a piece of our innocence was lost that day. We went from believing an unknown world of life existed or, at least, had existed on another planet to being alone again in the Universe. This was a major bummer for the future of Mars exploration. But, not to be dissuaded, we continued on our path of exploration on the red planet. Since there was no obvious presence of humanoid lives, it was still possible there was smaller forms of life. Our next step was to look for small microbes or bacteria. To do this, we focused on putting a couple landers on the surface itself. This exploration took the form of the Viking probes.

    Although there were questions about the Vikings discovering signs of life on the surface, it didn't stop NASA from continuing its quest on the red planet. However, with limited potential for overt evidence, the organization changed its course and was on the search for the ultimate building block of life: water. This seemed like a tailored plan, especially since many of the probes we had sent provided us with pictures of what looked like dried up river beds. Finally, after years of conjecture, we had a mission that seemed like a cut and dry possibility. Either there is water or there is not.

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    What Finding Water Will Do for Us

    There are a number of reasons that finding water on Mars will benefit mankind. Beyond the possibility of life existing there, water will give humans the chance to go to another planet without the worry of finding this treasured liquid. Water is essential to human survival. Knowing that there is a source on Mars would mean we could rely on the planet's source for our drinking water or for other uses.

    In addition, water provides the catalyst for ultimately terraforming the planet. If we intend to some day make Mars into an Earth-like planet, it is necessary for there to be already existing H2O. With water, we can possibly grow plants, feed animals and establish ecosystems. Without water, there is little chance for us to accomplish these basic tasks.

    Finally, water on another planet could be the savior for our own. According to environmental scientists, our water table on Earth is shrinking each year. This is caused by exploitation of water in its natural habitat, the movement of water from one place to another and possibly climate change.

    When we damage water with pollution, we taint it for future generations. Many soft drink and beverage companies are presently polluting vast amounts of water and also draining lake beds for bottling the water to be shipped to other parts of the world. Cities around the world are doing the same thing when they pump water to thirsty residents. This unnatural movement of the water supply contributes to the growing deserts around the world. Even more critical is the fact that certain nations and people around the world are finding water to be a major challenge to procure. In recent years, this has sparked conflict between factions over water rights and could potentially spring into a major war in the future. By locating water on Mars, we open up the possibility of collecting it for use on our planet. Although this is a concept bordering on science fiction at this time.

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    Pay Attention

    The next time you see some information about the possibility of water on Mars, you should make a point to pay more attention. This has been a search that began at least 130 years ago and may be coming to an end. The average person spends more time waiting for the results of Dancing with the Stars than whether a world-changing event is taking place.

    Beyond that, with the problems that appear to be raising their ugly heads across this planet, we need some sort of potential. Perhaps water on Mars could be just that. Not only will it give us a reason to start a new moon-shot program, it may also be the savior of our species. Eventually, if we are to survive, we need to get off this rock and go somewhere with water.

References

  • Universe Today, http://www.universetoday.com/17703/phoenix-probe-says-both-yes-and-no-to-water-on-mars/
  • Exploration of Mars, http://www.nasm.si.edu/etp/mars/explore.html
  • Discovery News. http://news.discovery.com/space/mars-salt-water-surface-110804.html
  • Image: Newton Crater supplied by NASA under public domain