So there’s water on Mars

Evidence for water on Mars is mounting. Last week a broken wheel on NASA’s Spirit Rover upturned Martian soil with a 90 percent concentration of silica, which scientists believe required water to produce.

Evidence for water on Mars is mounting. Last week a broken wheel on NASA’s Spirit Rover upturned Martian soil with a 90 percent concentration of silica, which scientists believe required water to produce. In 2002, large quantities of ice were found near the Martian southern pole. In 2004, scientists reported that the landing site of the Mars Rover Opportunity was once “drenched with water.” In 2006, Mars Global Surveyor took photographs showing that sedimentary deposits in one of Mars’ gullies had changed over a six-year period indicating a possible recent flow of water through the area. Last March, a soil analysis revealed large concentrations of sulfur and trace amounts of water. All of this evidence for water is exciting because it sets up two scenarios. First, where there is water, there could be life. Second, where there is water, life from Earth could exist.

Imagine your trip to Mars

Imagine the year is 2037, 30 years from now. The average college student of 2007 is pushing 50. A lot has changed in 30 years. Summers are dreadfully hot. Ocean levels have risen. New York is the new Venice. Fifty is the new 30. And you look marvelous. Sizing yourself up in the mirror, you think, baby, I’ve still got it.

Even so, fashion and music trends have slipped your grasp. Body piercing is out. Amputation and creative reattachment are in. You wonder what the world is coming to as you watch a young girl swing her reattached arm from her left butt cheek. How does she sit down? Somehow, she is smoking a cigarette. As you catch yourself in a scowl, you decide to go on vacation.

In 2037, everyone who is anyone vacations on Mars. “Cool off on Mars” says the brochure that appears in your inbox today. With planetary lows at negative 220 degrees and highs peeking at 80, Mars is just the place to cool your heels and escape the broiling Earth. Sure its atmospheric pressure is less than 1 percent of Earth’s (a minor inconvenience taken care of by the genius of modern technology). At least no radical time adjustment will be needed. The length of the Martian day is nearly the same as Earth’s at 24.5 hours.

Martian attractions are impressive. At the top of your list is a visit to Olympus Mons, the largest volcanic mountain in the entire solar system at an impressive 78,000 feet. Also catching your eye is Tharsis, a huge bulge in the Martian landscape that deforms the planet’s roundness at approximately 2,000 miles long and six miles high. The enormous canyon system called the Valles Marineris is what finally gets you to the launch pad. In Earth terms, the Valles Marineris covers a distance equivalent to the distance between New York and Los Angeles, making the Grand Canyon look like a pothole. Valles Marineris was not created by water erosion. It was formed by the stretching and cracking produced by the growth of the Tharsis bulge.

Googling Rick Steves’ latest guide to Martian travel, you decide to take the historic tour. Scientists believe that Mars experienced the largest floods in solar system history about three and a half billion years ago. These floods cut various designs into the red planet, creating physical features closely resembling shorelines, gorges, riverbeds and islands.

Making Mars livable

The year 2037 seems too soon to predict that Earth’s engineers will have returned the flow of water to the red planet. It seems possible that this could be done if more trillions of dollars could be laid down. Perhaps building a nuclear reactor near Mars’ polar ice caps would be the answer to thaw the frost. If we could just figure out how to get some kind of greenhouse effect going on Mars, like we have on Earth, then maybe a more Earth-like environment could be created–or shall we say, recreated. Some scientists believe that Mars was once much warmer and wetter than it is today.

Mars has long been a subject of human fascination. The fourth rock from the sun, named for the god of war, Mars is forever tugging at our hearts and wallets. After more than 20 missions to Mars conducted primarily by the United States and Russia (formerly the U.S.S.R.), information on the red planet has grown like never before. A hundred years ago, astronomers like Percival Lowell spent long hours straining their eyes through telescopes hoping for a moment of resolution. Upon seeing a clear image, they would hastily sketch what they saw. Now, not only are detailed images available, but animations of Mars are a mouse click away. It is not hard to imagine that travel to Mars will one day be possible.

Is Martian money well spent?

But with all this dreaming and spending on Mars, what about Earth? If one listens to the nearly 2,000 scientists who have warned us of impending global climate change, might our attention, money and scientific minds be better focused here, on Earth? If we are really at a turning point in the history of this planet shouldn’t all of our resources be focused on getting us out of the trouble we’re in?

Why are we spending billions of dollars to travel to Mars? Is it a rich man’s folly, denial of the state of our planet, proof that we’re in no trouble at all, or none of the above–something perhaps more paranoid and sinister? Undeniably, traveling to another planet is proof of our species’ intellectual capabilities. But what are our intentions?

For more information

Images taken from Mars Odyssey and Mars Global Surveyor,

Mars News,

Malin Space Science Systems,

NASA Mars Rovers news archive,

Zip Code Mars,