Water on Mars

Maybe there was once water on Mars. Maybe not. Reuters reports:

“We think Opportunity is now parked on what was once the shoreline of a salty sea on Mars,” said Steve Squyres, principal investigator for the science payload on Opportunity and its twin Mars exploration Rover, Spirit.

On March 2, astronomers announced that the Red Planet was “drenched with water” at some point. But the rovers’ analysis of Mars rocks has now produced the first concrete evidence that liquid water might actually have flowed on planet’s surface.

“If you have an interest in searching for fossils on Mars, this is the first place to go,” said Ed Weiler, NASA’s associate administrator for space science.

Love that alliteration–the shoreline of a salty sea. It conjures up images of beachcombers and cottages or at least seashells and seaweed with terns turning in the sunlight. Seems like a bit of a stretch. NASA thinks they’ve found not just moisture, not just a few molecules of H2O but a sea with rocks drenched with salty spray, rocks lovingly shaped by streaming water. Pardon my skepticism, but it seems that NASA has just a bit of interest in stretching the results. Notice that even Reuters uses the word “might.”

This hasn’t dampened any of the enthusiasm. Here’s one analysis headlined “Mars water discoveries loom huge” that compares the finding to Galileo’s discoveries.

…the sheer disclosure of the presence of water on a planet other than our own is monumental. It ranks with the moment, nearly 400 years ago, when Galileo Galilei peered through his telescope and discovered spots on the sun, mountains on the moon and four tiny bodies circling Jupiter.

Those revelations, which today are taken for granted, also were monumental in their day. Prior to their disclosure, people confidently — even fervently — believed Earth was the immovable center of the universe, surrounded by all the heavenly bodies, each of which was a perfect, featureless sphere. Galileo’s announcement was considered so shocking at the time he was charged with heresy by the Roman Catholic Church.

Opportunity’s findings have been treated more matter of factly, with NASA officials holding a news conference and bubbling over with enthusiasm at the images Opportunity has transmitted, and members of the media duly reporting the information and displaying the rover’s images.

Yet the importance of this finding cannot be overstated.

Until now, we have known for sure of only one planet on which liquid water has flowed — and water is absolutely essential for supporting life as we know it. There are no chemical processes that will permit the formation of the long, complex organic molecules composing living organisms other than in the presence of water.

It is an extremely simple rule: No water, no life. As long as Earth was the only planetary body containing liquid water — and, more particularly, seawater — then it was the only place in the universe where life was possible.

Now, suddenly, there are two.

Is this a huge discovery? Huge for NASA, certainly, eager to send people to Mars in search of fossils or at least an abandoned sailboat.

I’m in the middle of Simon Morris’s Life’s Solutions: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. I suspect Morris is unimpressed with the latest Martian chronicle. He argues that it is very likely that we’re alone in the universe. The first part of the book that makes this claim is fascinating with quirky writing and lots of good information. The rest of the book argues for the inevitability of humanity evolving. The writing and narrative of the second half is less spritely and slower going but the first part of the book is very much worth a look.


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