22 June, 2008

Sunday Sensational Science

There's water on that thar planet!

There's been a lot of talk over the years about water on Mars. But this is the first time we've had definitive proof of water ice, and it even melts! Check out the lower left corner of these photos, returned by Phoenix:

See there? Those white chunks that vanished - that's water! You can see an animated version here that really makes it pop.

This is huge.

Where there is water, there is life, at least on Earth. As part of NASA's ongoing expedition to 'Follow the Water,' Phoenix is looking for signs of habitable zones, not biological life per se. It does not have the equipment to look into the ice for microbial lifeforms.

Nevertheless, if any type of Martian lifeform existed that could be seen with the naked human eye, say a Martian beetle living under a rock, the lander could easily detect it and photograph it. And, there are a few intriguing rocks in the area that the scientists' have been eyeing. "There are rocks in our vicinity and I think half the scientists here are very curious to flip one over and see if there's anything living beneath it or if there's a salt concentration," acknowledged Smith.

I don't think the general public usually thinks of scientists as a demonstrative lot - they seem to believe scientists are a bunch of Vulcans without the weird eyebrows and pointy ears - but I can guarantee you we'll see the scientists studying this data seriously losing their composure if a bug crawls out from under a rock.

I'm just never going to hear the end of it if we find life on Mars. My father thinks life originated there - or possibly on Venus, one of the two - and I've tended to chuckle at him. But imagine - we've just found water on Mars. Future missions will equip us to look for fossils. Can you just picture the size of the crow I'm going to have to eat if it turns out that panspermia from Mars is indeed what started life on Earth?

I've got a full bottle of ketchup handy, and a glass of wine to toast this mission with. One day, kids are going to look at me like I'm a nut for being so exicted over this - 'duh, there's water on Mars, everybody knows that' - but there's a chance they'll understand just how shocking, how exhilirating, it is to know for the first time.

When I was a child, water on Mars was pretty much a myth: the poles were nothing more than carbon dioxide ice, the place was barren and lifeless, everybody knew that.

Everybody except for a few scientists crunching numbers and saying, "Hmmm. You know what..."

And my dad.

And a few freaks, but we've always got those.

This week, we know. We've got the evidence, melting right before our eyes. If that doesn't provoke a sense of wonder, I don't know what will. Even if Phoenix doesn't find life on Mars, hell, there's water. Water's all over the place. We're finding more in the universe all the time. And like A.J.S. Rayl said, "Where there is water, there is life..."

In a few years - or tomorrow - Rayl may not have to add that "at least on Earth" caveat anymore. If not because of Mars, because of another world where life arose from the ubiquitous water.

Talk about sensational....

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