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The New Frontier Just Got a Whole Lot More Exciting

Scientists at NASA have long speculated that the surface of Mars once had more than enough water to sustain life, but until recently the only Martian dihydrogen oxide that had been found was in the form of either snow or ice. However, on 28 September 2015, NASA announced that it had finally found liquid water on the Red Planet.

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Photo courtesy of NASA

Evidence suggests that in the past Mars was wet, warm, and had an atmosphere rich in carbon dioxide — much like the conditions that led to the progression of life on Earth.

Due to the small size and relative inactivity of our planetary neighbor’s core, most of the Martian atmosphere got soaked up by the surface, causing the average temperature to drastically drop to a modern-day average of -55° C (-67° F). That’s why liquid water is so rare on Mars (fresh water typically freezes at 0° C [32° F] on Earth).

But after more than fifty years of searching, NASA has finally confirmed with the help of its Curiosity rover and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) that there is definitely present-day water on Mars, and some of it is in a liquid state.

Using the MRO’s imaging spectrometer, researchers captured photos of dark streaks of hydrated minerals — called “recurring slope lineae” — ebbing and flowing down Martian mountains. These streaks are almost certainly caused by salty groundwater that gets released to the surface during Mars’s warmer months.

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Recurring slope lineae, as seen using the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s imaging spectrometer. Photo Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

When paired with last December’s announcement that the Mars Curiosity rover found water molecules and organic compounds buried in ancient lakebed rock, the discovery of flowing water is exciting news for those hoping to find extraterrestrial life in our solar system.

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Curiosity rover’s drillhole at the Cumberland lakebed on Mars. Photo Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

So far, Earth is the only planet known to harbor cellular life, but how it ever developed here remains a mystery. If we were to discover lifeforms on another planet, that would be a massive step toward understanding where we came from, and possibly even where we’re going.

Currently, life on Earth is dying at incredible rates. While there is hope for reversing the negative effects of carbon over-emission, there are too few people trying to do so.

A pragmatic optimist might look at evidence for the possible sustenance of life on Mars as hope that earthlings might prevail past the biological destruction of the Third Planet. NASA is already hopeful that we may one day be able to colonize Mars, and is hard at work developing ideas and the subsequent technologies for doing so.

One release from the agency reports that we might be able to use greenhouse gases to increase the temperature of the Red Planet enough to make it habitable for life, while another suggests using microorganisms to convert Martian regolith (the planet’s red rocky dust) into plantable soil.

As NASA plans for the distant future of humans on Mars, the agency is also working hard on getting us there in the near future. If all goes as planned, astronauts should begin their eight-month journey to our reddish neighbor by 2030 — so start getting excited now, because it could be our future home.

UPDATE: On October 8, NASA released a thirty-six-page report detailing its future plans for Mars exploration. Check it out.

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Matthew M. Sullivan holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Grand Valley State University, with emphases in fiction and nonfiction. He lives smack-dab between some railroad tracks and Grand Rapids Michigan's third-busiest road, and spends his time studying film and literary fiction.