Chair Force Engineer

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


It appears that NASA is giving up on the Mars Global Surveyor, which fell silent over a month ago due to a failure in the solar array joint. MGS didn't fall victim to the "Great Galactic Ghoul." It simply wore out after a ten-year mission that represented ten of the most productive years for exploring Mars and unlocking its mysteries.

Even though the mission is likely over, the legacy of MGS is only now starting to become clear. Today it was announced that MGS images seem to show liquid water on the surface of Mars. If confirmed, this discovery turns our ideas about Mars completely upside-down. Since the Mariner 4 flyby of Mars, scientists thought of the planet as static, dead, and fairly dull. But then we started to learn that the Martian poles were predominantly made of water ice. And then there were tantalyzing hints of methane in the atmosphere that could indicate some form of extant life.

NASA's philosophy towards Mars has been to "follow the water." The channels that criss-cross the Martian surface, plus minerals in the soil discovered by the Opportunity rover, indicate that the planet had been wet at one time. Mars Odyssey gave us tantalyzing hints that water lie just under the surface of much of the planet. But the newly-released MGS photos lead us to believe that this underground water may seep out of the ground and exist as a liquid under certain temperature and pressure conditions.

The view of Mars is continually evolving, and the recent trend is that Mars is less hostile towards sustaining life than we once thought. What does that mean for the discovery of life on Mars in the past, and the possibility of Martian microbes in the present? What does it mean for the potential of restoring life to Mars, by way of human colonization and terraforming? These are fascinating questions that will be pondered for centuries to come. We will always remember that MGS was the very start of it--launching as NASA resumed its exploration of the red planet, and ending as NASA finally found the water that will be the lifeblood of the humans who will live on Mars.