“Follow the water” has always been the maxim for the plethora of hopeful astrobiologists around the globe searching for life in the universe. So when Italian scientists found evidence of a large body of liquid water on Mars, the space community had every right to be excited.
“Water is there… it’s liquid, it’s salty, and there are all the ingredients for thinking that life can be there,” says Enrico Flamini, chief scientist of the Italian Space Agency, speaking to the New York Times. The key word here is “liquid”: despite numerous discoveries of frozen ice caps on Mars, this is the first time water with the potential to inhabit life has been found. Although temperatures one mile under Mars are well under freezing point, scientists suspect that high concentrations of salts and extreme pressure kept those water molecules in a liquid state.
What are the implications of this discovery on the search for life outside of Earth? Disappointingly, little more can be said about the existence of life on the red planet; however, we now have a much clearer starting point on where to look. “This kind of environment is not exactly your ideal vacation, or a place where fish would swim,” says Roberto Orosei, Italian planetary scientist, speaking to Reuters. “But there are terrestrial organisms that can survive and thrive, in fact, in similar environments. There are microorganisms on Earth that are capable of surviving even in ice.”
However, there are still a few lingering doubts about the entire discovery. Some skeptic scientists doubt the accuracy of the evidence itself, due to its circumstantial nature. “You have a lot of interfaces that could do strange things to radar signals,” said Dr. Richard Zurek of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “It’s the kind of signal we would expect for liquid water. Is it the only way that signal could be produced? That’s the hard part.” The extreme saltiness of the water makes it a hostile habitat for organisms to grow and reproduce.
Some even question the very integrity of “invading Mars” in the first place; seeing how badly we messed up our own planet, do we even have the right to tinker with the fate of other’s?
In my opinion, the discovery of water on Mars is not only crucial because of its pure scientific value, but if this leads to the uncovering of extraterrestrial life, it may finally open up the narrow mindset of us humans. With rapidly improving space travel technology, as well as the growing need for a solution to overpopulation, we are in danger of making the same mistake again and polluting other planets as well. Perhaps knowing that we aren’t the only ones out there will make us more conscious and careful with where and how we are leaving our footprints. Interfering with a cold, barren piece of space rock 50 million kilometers away doesn’t raise any eyebrows, but tampering with a place where living organisms actually existed is an entirely different story.
Brian Ham, Grade 10
Seoul International School