Astronomy has a lot of unanswered questions, but there’s one in particular that tends to grab imaginations:
Or, y’know, life anywhere else in the universe, hence the $865 million and combined 11000 years of work sunk into Voyager (equivalent to roughly a third of the work needed to build the Great Pyramid at Giza, according to NASA). But for most, Mars is special. It’s close by, for one thing, making it likely the best bet for establishing any potential space colonies (most of the other planets in the Solar System having been ruled out due to long distances, being composed of gas, raining sulphuric acid, etc.) For a century or more, it’s been a homeland for an array of fictional monsters with a penchant for trying to destroy the Earth, to say nothing of its previous stint as a symbol of war to ancient civilisations from Babylon to Greece.
Also it’s red and looks kinda cool, which probably helps
Scientists as great as Nikola Tesla have devoted serious amounts of time to thinking about how the inhabitants of Mars, if they existed, could be signalled. (Tesla inclined towards sending pulses of electricity through space to the planet, though, as he himself acknowledged, this would only allow the Martians to reply “if they be skilled electricians”. There was also the minor issue of the “balls of fire” produced by the apparatus he planned to use, which would result in anyone unlucky enough to encounter one “[being] instantly destroyed”. Tesla, was, however, eager to reassure readers that no assistants were harmed in the making of this Martian signalling device.*)
Fire 50 million volts into the void and hope to maybe attract the attention of something like this. What. Could. Possibly. Go. Wrong
To summarize: Mars has been the face of space exploration almost since the field began, with the constant will-they-won’t-they hunt for liquid water spurring on the excitement. Liquid water could mean the existence of life something like us on another planet, the holy grail of astrobiology. Yes, it may be fun to toss around ideas of silicon-based biology and oceans of ammonia giving rise to strange new species. But in the end, carbon’s ability to form complex molecules and water’s ability to exist as a liquid at temperatures where biological reactions go at a decent speed (something lacked by ammonia, which is a gas at room temperature), mean that in the absence of deeply, deeply weird planetary conditions any carbon-based water-loving species would likely end up out-competing their more sci-fi-esque rivals. It’s this search which motivates space agencies to throw rover after rover at the Red Planet, hoping to find something, or the remains of something, like us.
So, when this press release popped up on the NASA website, ears started pricking:
“NASA will detail a major science finding from the agency’s ongoing exploration of Mars during a news briefing … on Monday, Sept. 28”
Major. What could be more major than finding liquid water?
Or it could be something else. There’s no particular reason to assume that a big NASA announcement has to be liquid water, right? Except, examining the list of conference participants, we see among them planetary science PhD student Lujendra Ojha. Among Ohja’s research interests are Recurring Slope Linae, geological features on Mars that disappear and reappear on a yearly basis, and, tantalisingly, are speculated to have been formed by running water.
So maybe. Maybe not. Either way, the conference starts today 3:30 p.m. GMT, 11:30 a.m. EDT. Get your Red Planet hype on.
Watch conference live on NASA TV from 3:30 GMT.
*“I have every reason for congratulating myself that throughout these experiments, many of which were exceedingly delicate and hazardous, neither myself nor any of my assistants received any injury …” (Talking With The Planets, 1901). However, he goes on to admit that “…I observed that the strain upon my assistants was telling, and some of them could not endure the extreme tension of the nerves”. Great. That’s just dandy, then.
Header image from here.