With a press conference earlier today, NASA announced that not only did the red planet have water, but in fact may have vast flowing repositories of the all important compound in vast quantities beneath the permafrost. The announcement has already prompted questions about the potential for life on the red planet. How is our image of Mars as a cold dead barren world gradually changing with each new discovery? And what might this mean for future space exploration?
First of all, there is the practical side to the question. The discovery of liquid water repositories will be a very real asset to explorers when they find themselves on the Martian surface. And these deposits could be an important source of water, but if the very fact that the water remains in a liquid state could be important as well on a planet where most elements – even carbon dioxide – have a tendency to freeze over. And depending on how much heat the liquid water will have, we may even be able to soon see new technologies dedicated to exploiting the resources newly found on the Martian surface.
But there’s another side to this story, one which will have scientists arguing for some time. It’s long been held that the presence of liquid water on the Martian surface is one of the strongest indicators possible that we may be able to one day find life there. Although scientists at the live press conference hosted at the NASA website were quick to hold off on jumping the gun and announcing proof that surely life must exist on Mars, this step forward is the closest we’ve come to confirmation yet. When water was first discovered on the Martian soil, the main point of contention held that the water would remain frozen and therefore be useless to any life creating possibilities. But with this latest discovery, the skeptics who said the liquid water was just a myth may have to change tactics.
In fact, one of the topics covered at the press conference dealt with so called extremophiles which exist on Earth and in fact even thrive in harsher conditions than those described for the red planet. These extremophiles are capable of surviving in incredibly cold, radioactive, acidic, and/or hot circumstances with very little problem. The extremophiles have even been discovered to be able to form more complex networks of cells and exist in ways we thought impossible until just recently. And one of the immediate reactions was to the possibility of iron deposits within the liquid pools which, if integrated into an organism’s cellular structure, would shield them from radiation of all sorts.
Will we one day see complex Martian life? At this point it’s unknown, but scientists have opened the possibility of simpler forms of life, like bacteria and even viruses wide open. The only question is how we will study it if we do find it, and if it will be complex enough to study us back.