NASA’s Mars rover, Curiosity, may have just answered the long, sought-after question plaguing the many scientists investigating the Red Planet: Does Mars have any obtainable liquid water? Curiosity answered with a “yes.”
Since the Babylonians in 400 B.C.E., astronomers have speculated whether our extraterrestrial neighbor, Mars, supported life beyond ours. Perhaps even more importantly, many wondered if it could support a future home for humanity.
The simple answer to both questions: Only if there is a presence of water.
The NASA Mars Exploration Program website says, “Water is key because almost everywhere we find water on Earth, we find life.” Before 1965, the first observations of Mars yielded almost giddy results. The planet seemed remarkably similar to Earth in regards to size, climate and landforms. The surface depicted an ancient planet with dried oceans and rivers — abundant centers of life here on Earth.
And although since then, 50 years worth of advanced scientific analysis have all but eliminated the hope of large creatures living on Mars, NASA has not given up in its search to find remnants of water.
While no Martians have been found yet, Curiosity discovered something momentous. A week ago, Curiosity’s endeavors paid off in the most exciting way possible: in the form of non-evaporated, potentially obtainable liquid water.
Curiosity utilizes the most novel and advanced technology that has ever been sent to Mars. The rover wields an instrument called “Sample Analysis of Mars,” in which the rover scoops samples of dirt and deposits it in its belly.
Inside, the samples are sieved and then heated for clear determination of the soil’s composition. In the soil, scientists discovered water molecules bonded to the Martian dirt, composing over 2 percent of its weight.
While this may seem initially anticlimactic, the very existence of liquid water molecules offers exciting implications. The Guardian interviewed head author of the paper and Dean of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Laurie Leshin. Her team discovered that “each cubic foot of soil has about two pints of water.”
Dr. Leshin said, “If you took a cubic foot of dirt and heated it up, you’d get a couple water bottles’ worth that you could take to the gym.”
Dr. Leshin, along with many scientists, believe that Mars may now be able to act as an interstellar refueling stop for future human missions.
Realistically, building a self-sustaining habitat for humans in the near future may still be out of pragmatic realization.
The thinner atmosphere is hardly conducive to large collections of liquid water and does not foster oxygen-rich environments. Moreover, from its tests, Curiosity has discovered a more sinister chemical in the soil. Perchlorate exists at levels of 0.5 percent, which is easily enough to impede human thyroid function.
If astronauts were to come into contact with the fine-grain sand, they may experience hazardous malfunctioning of their endocrine systems.
Nevertheless, long voyage missions beyond Mars may now seem feasible.
If liquid water can be readily harvested from the ground, rather than from the frozen polar caps on the surface, then future astronauts may exploit this resource for sustenance.
Leshin told The Guardian, “I do think it’s inevitable that we’ll send people there, so let’s do it as smartly as we can.”
NASA’s Curiosity flew to Mars on the original mission to discover microbial life and evaluate the possibility of human inhabitance. Since touch down, the rover has thoroughly investigated super volcanoes and the subsurface of the planet.
Some scientists hope to be surprised by the existence of microbial life within the heated vents of Martian volcanoes, capable of a thousand times the explosion that rocked Mt. St. Helens. None have been found yet, but Curiosity still rolls on.
On a more local note, Curiosity will be fully operational throughout the recent U.S. government shutdown. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, privately owned by CalTech, funds the majority of the Curiosity mission and thus can avoid the employee furlough affecting the rest of NASA. Therefore, the discovery of water may be only the first of many groundbreaking realizations Curiosity unravels in the months to come.