Humans have long pondered the potential for life on other planets in the universe. Up until recently, however, we have not had the technology or research capabilities to deeply investigate beyond our planet in our quest for an answer.
Findings released this week have brought us one step closer to discovering whether life could exist, not just in galaxies far away, but on a planet that is our neighbor in the solar system.
New evidence points to the presence of liquid, intermittently-flowing water on present day Mars, NASA announced on Monday.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), launched in 2005, has spent the last 10 years orbiting Mars in a search for evidence of water that may have been historically present on the planet. As the key ingredient for the presence of life, any discovery of water would suggest that life could be possible on Mars.
Dark, narrow streaks have been observed before on the surface of the planet, and scientists at first had no real, evidence-confirmed ideas as to what was creating them.
Using an imaging spectrometer on the MRO to closely analyze these streaks, researchers recently found traces of hydrated minerals called perchlorates, which strongly supports the hypothesis that there is water that ebbs and flows on Mars in the present day.
This water is likely a shallow flow beneath the surface, with just enough liquid rising to the surface of the planet to either create the dark streaks or to instigate another process that forms them, according to NASA. These streaks appear to change seasonally, darkening and flowing during warm seasons and receding during cooler seasons.
The discovery of water on Mars is particularly relevant because Mars, when it is closest to Earth, is only around 35 million miles away — really just a hop, a skip and a jump, cosmically speaking.
Not only that, but there are plans underway for several missions to send humans to the Red Planet within the next 10 to 20 years.
NASA is developing the capabilities necessary to send researchers to Mars by the 2030s, according to its website.
Mars One, a not for profit foundation, hopes to put crews of hardy explorers on Mars to begin a human settlement by 2026. This mission bills itself as “a global initiative aiming to make this everyone’s mission to Mars,” and is run by a team of international members, including people from the Netherlands, Canada and the United States, according to the Mars One website.
Perhaps sending humans to Mars will prove to be more complicated than researchers currently think. But if and when they arrive, we now know that they might even be greeted by a familiar substance, water, though admittedly in a much brinier form than water found on earth.
Nevertheless, our neighboring Red Planet still holds many mysteries, some of which researchers are continuing to unravel and others which will likely remain unsolved.
The big mystery, the question of whether life could exist on Mars, remains. But the discovery of the presence of water is a significant factor that allows us to leave that possibility open.