Seth writes “Mars: Eau What A Find!”

by Keith Rozendal on August 11, 2011

YouTube Preview Image Possible water flows on Mars, a video from NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory California Institute of Technology

Seth Shostak took a moment to reflect on the recent Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter finding, in between a calls from the media seeking comment on its importance for SETI research.

Water on Mars? “Tell me something new,” you’re thinking.

Claims for evidence of water on the Red Planet seem to be as routine as Tax Day. So, why all the commotion about a recent NASA announcement that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has found dark streaks that appear on crater walls during the martian summer?

Well, to begin with, the streaks – which are a few yards wide and as long as a football field – suggest the presence of liquid water (probably salty) immediately beneath Mars’ sandy surface. That’s a different story than the polar ice caps that seemed so intriguing to William Herschel more than two centuries ago, or the rock-hard ice found by NASA’s Phoenix Lander a few years back. The streaks could signal the presence of cold melt water – water that could support life.

But does it? Are there martian microbes in that soggy, subsurface dirt? We might find out, and fairly soon. Thanks to the fact that the suspected liquid is at shallow depths, it might be possible to build a robotic lander that could ease itself down onto the streaks, and use a drill to retrieve a soppy sample from below. Analyzing the sample chemically – or maybe just examining it with a simple microscope – might uncover alien pond scum. That would be major discovery, as it would imply that biology is rampant throughout the cosmos.

Sure, the idea of water on Mars is not new, but this wet stuff could be the right stuff.

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