On the same day Pope Francis told Congress about his heavenly inclinations, the folks at NASA sent out a press release regarding inclinations about one of their own celestial mysteries: the possibility of extraterrestrial life.
Following up on that release Monday, NASA announced that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter detected chemicals that suggest liquid water flows on the surface of Mars. Any space enthusiast would let out an emphatic “hurrah” — but before any crazy tinfoil hats come out, you should realize that reports of Mars’ potential to support life come out more often than just once in a blue (or red) moon.
An astrologist might say that the celestial symbols aligned in some great, path-defining way to achieve this great discovery, but scientists look at this new finding and say something along the lines of what the discovery’s lead researcher, Lujendra Ojha, said, “Liquid water is a sexy topic, and [our team’s discovery is] like the thousandth time
someone has discovered water on Mars.”
This recent example of water currently flowing on Mars is certainly the most valid and reliable discovery to date, but it is far from the first time that NASA has learned that life could appear on the red planet.
Several years ago, scientists determined that samples the Viking Mars landers took in 1976 may have included perchlorates, suggesting the Martian soil contained basic substances necessary for life. More recently, the Curiosity rover detected the possibility of water currently existing on Mars in April.
In my opinion, more impressive than the actual discovery of flowing water on Mars is NASA’s dedication to the scientific theory. An unexpected result does not create sufficient evidence to prove a hypothesis. Of course, in most labs, scientists can simply test lab results again — but when the lab is circling a planet that’s a couple astronomical units from the sun, reproving a theory can take some time (as well as billions of dollars in grants) to unfold.
It seems we learn every few years that Mars might support life — and that is great for NASA’s public relations department. Still, water on Mars is exciting. When we discover water in a new place, we can start to deduce that maybe it isn’t so rare in our solar system after all. For example, earlier this month, we found an ocean on Saturn’s moon
Enceladus. Maybe getting and keeping a human on another planet will be just a little easier than we thought.
Of course, the best coincidence of all this is that we have a major discovery just days before Matt Damon brings us a Hollywood feature about living on the Martian world — and, for better or for worse, in the wake of the latest discovery, that movie will have a very big plot hole to contend with.