Eureka! Liquid water on Mars, confirms NASA

Unspoilt beauty: Can you imagine humans living among these Martian mountains? © NASA

Yesterday NASA confirmed that there is liquid water on the surface of Mars, making alien life and human settlement on the planet more likely. Is colonisation a good idea?

At 16:11 yesterday, the news that millions had been waiting for was finally announced: NASA has found evidence of water flowing on the surface of Mars.

The salty liquid water runs in downhill channels along the planet’s surfaces during warm summer months, before drying up when temperatures cool. The evidence of this water can clearly be seen in the dark stains, each a few hundred metres long, which form intricate patterns down the valleys and craters.

The former head of NASA’s Mars programme Doug McCuistion said that the discovery could be a ‘trigger for both finding life and hurrying up and getting people to Mars’. Finding living microbes would help answer the thousands-year-old question of whether we on earth are ‘alone’. But McCuistion argues that there could be more practical benefits: it could help to save the human race all together.

Mars is one of the best candidates for a human colony away from Earth, as it has an atmosphere, temperatures which range between -55C to 27C, and soil which might grow crops. The idea of human life on Mars has long captivated the human imagination, most recently in Ridley Scott’s latest blockbuster The Martian — a thrilling tale of survival on the Red Planet after a scientist is left behind on a mission.

Transporting water to Mars is one of the major obstacles, simply because the supplies taken with the explorers would weigh ‘many, many metric tons’. But, McCuistion said, ‘if you take water out of the equation that is going to lighten the load significantly’.

Scientific journalist Stephen Petranek believes that a colonising mission will happen for real by 2027. In his book How We’ll Live on Mars, he argues that humans have had the technology for 50 years — but it has never been a priority for governments. Now that private companies such as SpaceX and Mars One have begun making their own plans, science fiction could soon become a reality.

To boldly go

There are many reasons why humans should try to live on Mars, say scientists and space entrepreneurs. Life here on Earth could be threatened by catastrophic nuclear war, devastating climate change, or even an unexpected event such as an asteroid impact. Humanity is, as far as we know, unique in its intelligence and ingenuity, which makes it a rare and beautiful thing that must be preserved. We should begin the missions before it’s too late.

But others are less certain. ‘Colonising’ missions in the past, from Christopher Columbus in America to the British rule in India, have generally led to war, resentment and the deaths of millions. What’s to say we would fare better on Mars? Humans have already been given one planet; it is arrogant to assume that we deserve another.

You Decide

  1. 2020. The call goes out for the first volunteers to Mars. Will you sign up?
  2. Should humanity hope to survive forever?

Activities

  1. Imagine a colony of 20 humans living on an area of Mars about the size of a football pitch. Draw a design for the settlement.
  2. Research previous discoveries about Mars and create a factfile on the planet.

Some People Say...

“Humans are doomed to destroy everything they touch.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I am 15. Do I have a chance of living on Mars?
Well, there is still lots more research to be done — the Curiosity rover on Mars is currently collecting data, and NASA has planned another mission to Mars in 2020 which can directly test the feasibility of sending humans there. Most astronaut programmes require intense fitness and a broad knowledge of science or engineering. But if you start now, one day you may just get lucky.
What else do they need to find out?
There are many more questions to answer. Where is the liquid water coming from? Will it make it easier to grow crops? How can scientists make the atmosphere more breathable? What is the best way to cope with the mental stress of a months-long journey and complete isolation? And, if they wanted to, how would they get back to Earth?

Word Watch

NASA
America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration, responsible for the US space programme and research.
Liquid water
The water appears above ground in periodic cycles, but NASA’s scientists say that it could be running ‘even today’. It is not pure H2O, as it contains salts which help to prevent it from freezing quickly on the planet’s often chilly surface. Elsewhere on Mars, water has been found in permanent ice form.
Microbes
‘On Earth, wherever we find water, we find life,’ said one of the scientists during the announcement. The presence of active liquid water makes this more likely on Mars, although they will probably be extremely small, bacteria-like life forms.
Atmosphere
On Mars it includes 95% carbon dioxide and 2.7% nitrogen, but only about 0.13% oxygen — not enough for humans to breathe safely.
SpaceX
Billionaire and CEO Elon Musk says he intends to send one million people to Mars for $500,000 each.
Mars One
The Dutch non-profit company has selected a shortlist of 100 potential astronauts who could be sent to live on Mars as part of a reality TV show by 2025.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.