The cute little rover, Curiosity, has been dutifully exploring the red planet for over a year now and it has sent home a really big discovery- there’s water on Mars, and it’s now official! Scientists have long pondered whether the planet could contain water, an essential element for life, and when they discovered very acidic water back in 2004, they felt they had a tantalizing hint that more water might be found. Now, Curiosity has discovered “abundant water.” In fact, a full two percent of the entire planet’s crust is made of water.
NASA investigator Paul Mahaffy explained that this new finding is key in helping scientists analyze the rest of the planet’s surface. “By combining analyses of water and other volatiles from SAM with mineralogical, chemical, and geological data from Curiosity’s other instruments,” he explained, “we have the most comprehensive information ever obtained on Martian surface fines. These data greatly advance our understanding of surface processes and the action of water on Mars.”
Among laypeople, the elephant in the room is whether this finding could mean that Mars once held, or still hosts, organic life. So far, no solid evidence has been uncovered that would point to even microbial life having existed, but could that finding be around the corner? And if proof of life on Mars were to be uncovered, what would that mean for us, knowing for certain that we’re not alone in the universe?
Not only is Mars abundant in water, but there is strong evidence that it once flowed with rivers and hosted lake-like bodies of water as well. Scientists say usually where there’s water, there life. Could Mars have once been home to millions of alien aquatic creatures? If it was home to alien aquatic microbes or even fish, what is the likelihood that those fish evolved?
It’s the question on everyone’s mind, and California Institute of Technology scientist Melissa Rice says there is a possibility that was Mars habitable at one time, although we don’t yet know for sure. “We know that we had an initial habitable environment when these rocks formed,” she said, “and then sometime later — we don’t know when — these rocks had water flowing through them, through these fractures, leaving calcium sulfate behind. We don’t know if that era would have also been habitable, but it tells us that there were at least two major wet stages.”
Curiosity also found a mudstone, which most likely came from a calm body of standing water, like a lake. Microbes love lakes; taking up residence there is a microbe’s dream, and finding the mudstone points to further evidence that Mars could once have hosted not only abundant water but abundant life as well.
Scientist Aileen Yingst explained “If you’re a microbe that is trying to get a hold on a place to live, you don’t necessarily want to be living in churning water; it’s not good for you to start growing and thriving,” Yingst said. “[Calm lake] water is a better place to live.”
It’s official now that there is water on Mars, but the question is- has life ever thrived there? Since researchers seem very keen on the idea of sending humans to Mars sooner rather than later, Curiosity ought to make sure that whatever may have thrived on Mars is no longer lurking around. The astronauts who will travel there will have enough on their plates to worry about without having to battle aliens or be inhabited by Martian microbes. Still, the rovers have made amazing progress since the program began, and many folks can’t wait to see what’s around the corner.
By: Rebecca Savastio