Tech / Sept. 29, 2015
OPINION: WHY FINDING WATER ON MARS MATTERS
Today's NASA announcement challenges our other assumptions about the universe.
BY JARED PETTY
Most of my life I’ve taken the hostility of outer space for granted. Textbooks and teachers taught me about an acidic atmosphere on Venus, bone-crushing gravity on Jupiter, frigid darkness on Pluto, and the arid, dead stone of the Martian wastes. I remember standing in the Smithsonian as a child staring at the lifeless landscapes photographed by the Viking missions, red rocky deserts stretching on to the edge of forever. That image cemented an idea which I accepted for a long time to be a matter of fact, that Mars was an inhospitable, empty rock spinning through space. But today I woke up into a universe where water, the most elemental of life-sustaining substances, flows across the surface of Mars.
The facts did not change, of course...water has long flowed on Mars whether we knew about it or not. But our understanding of the facts, the truth of the way things really are, was irrevocably altered today thanks to years of research by dedicated, underfunded agencies determined to discern a more perfect understanding of the universe. Today’s confirmation is a capstone on countless hours of hypothesis, research, and informed speculation by scientists, a vindication of their efforts reaping an incalculable reward. Today is a reminder that our assumptions about the fundamental nature of things deserve to be challenged.
The international scientific community has long embraced the possibility of interstellar life. Distant Earth-like worlds orbiting strange stars might harbor running water, alien creatures, and intelligent life. SETI radio telescopes scour deep space for evidence of civilization. But biospheres close to home have appeared a much more dubious prospect. Out beyond the asteroid field, Io, Europa, and Enceladus might have the right combination of moisture, warmth, and shelter to support organisms. But Mars is a next-door neighbor, one of the closest celestial bodies to our home world. She’s near enough that we’ve dropped multiple landers on her surface and similar enough in relation to the sun that we can anticipate human visitation and eventual colonization. And yet despite our proximity and long history of observation, it was only today that human beings truly understood such a simple, fundamental truth as the presence of liquid water moving across the planet’s surface.
Is there life on Mars? It’s an immense leap of logic from the presence of water to the likelihood of life. The magnetic and atmospheric conditions make familiar modes of life improbable on the surface, possible beneath it. Strange life could also dwell there, forms adapted to spectrums of exposure outside our terrestrial experience. But even if life is absent, the wonder of today’s discovery is in no way diminished.
Space travel is the impetus, the hope, for a broader-minded humanity conscious of its place in the galaxy. While the process of science often grants us advances in engineering, medicine, travel, and a host of other inventions, but discovery is not primarily a means to technical advancement. We confuse technology with science to our detriment. Science has given us technology, to be sure, but science’s great purpose represents so much more than light bulbs, airplanes, and a newer, thinner phone model every year. Ultimately, science is a quest for understanding, a way of answering questions. And the questions of our place in the vastness of the universe are the grandest, most wonderful, and most rewarding mysteries of all.
Water has existed on Mars through the lifetimes of every man and woman that has ever walked the planet Earth, and until today, we never knew. We only found out because we went looking. We developed the tools, spent the money, trained the people, and laid aside other needs for a greater purpose. Through that process of discovery, we learned that our collective assumptions about just how unique our world is in the cosmos demand reexamination. If water flows across the surface of a neighboring world, what else is possible? Is there alien life close enough that we can reach out and touch it? We’ll only know if we keep searching.
Today’s announcement reminds us that we should make a choice to become more dedicated searchers, laying aside some other expenses to fund the exploration of the planets. The costs are considerable but the potential rewards are tremendous. We all have tools for raising awareness and promoting grassroots advocacy. Every retweet of a legitimate, interesting space science story potentially helps a little. Letters to representatives and government officials about the importance of national science and space program funding may help more, and votes for candidates who advocate peaceful space research are even more powerful. For the teachers, siblings, and parents among us, educating children on the history and wonder of space exploration paves the way for a society more appreciate of science’s benefits. A career in astronomy, research, space advocacy, or even exploration is the ultimate investment, a chance to become a pioneer in humanity’s first steps from this tiny planet into the vast, great unknown of a boundless galaxy. Whatever your contribution, I hope we bump into each other on the way to building a better tomorrow.
Jared Petty is a Senior Editor at IGN. He once drove by Mars, Pennsylvania.