- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2003

Imagine a desert, so dry rain doesn’t fall for day after day, year after year, age after age. So desiccated that water has not flowed across the surface for millions, and possibly billions of years. So dusty that one could spend a lifetime driving over dune after dune.

That’s precisely what NASA’s two Mars Exploration Rovers, the first of which is expected to blast off today, are going to do. Assuming they both land successfully on Mars sometime next January, they will spend three months traversing the surface the dry desert planet, primarily in search of traces of water.

The European Space Agency also has a probe en route to Mars in a quest for water and life. Launched a week ago, the Mars Express consists of two components, an orbiter and a lander. When it arrives in late December, the orbiter will perform many experiments, perhaps the most important of which is sounding the surface to a depth of over a mile searching for pockets of water. Meanwhile, the British-built Beagle 2, (named for the ship on which Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands), will take a more direct approach, sniffing the air and burrowing into the surface in search of either life or its organic byproducts.

So why are several nations sending space probes on dangerous (since 1960, only 13 of the 31 probes launched at the planet have arrived successfully), expensive (the rover missions will cost about $400 million each, Beagle 2 went on the ‘shoestring’ of $60 million) missions to one of the driest deserts in known creation on a quest for, of all things, water?

One suspects that policymakers might have indulged in too much of the Gaelic “water of life,” — whiskey. However, there are actually two good reasons. One is distance. Mars and the Earth are the right orbital positions for a quick transit, one that comes around about every 26 months. But the larger reason is that Mars is one of the few places in the solar system where an essential component for life — liquid water — almost certainly flowed across the surface.

Previous spacecraft have discovered gullies probably cut by floods, long-dried floodplains and possibly even ancient ocean shorelines. Scientists aren’t sure how long that period lasted, although they theorize that it ended a long, long time ago — about 3 billion years.

A young warm wet Mars may have been a breeding ground for something lifelike, thanks to the unique properties of liquid water, which permit and in some cases facilitate the chemical reactions that make life possible. In his recently published book, “Life on a Young Planet: The first three billion years of evolution on earth,” paleontologist Andrew Knoll wrote: “Early in its history, Mars was much more like Earth. Both planets had relatively thick atmospheres, active volcanism, and, at least intermittently, liquid water. On Earth, these conditions incubated life, and it is reasonable to hypothesize that they could have also done so on Mars.”

Few serious scientists believe little green men ever set foot on the place, but little red bacteria might have gained a toehold. There’s even a slight possibility that such life, if it arose, may have later seeded the Earth. While that is only a theory, the distant ancestors of men (and women) might actually have come from Mars.

In a recent lecture, “Lessons from Mars for Life on Earth,” given at the Air and Space Museum, astronomy professor Donald Brownlee pointed out that not only was Mars once a place possibly conducive to the development of life, but it will be so again. Over time, the sun will gradually become hotter and brighter. As it heats up, so will the Earth, to the point that 1.5 billion to 2 billion from now, the oceans will evaporate away. At that point, Mars, not the Earth, will be more habitable for Homo sapiens and its descendants.

Humans may need Martian water far sooner than that. After all, aside from the Moon, Mars is the closest potentially habitable place around. If Americans ever find the political will to send explorers to Mars, they will need water to survive. While the costs of bringing enough water with them would be exorbitant, Mars explorers could use the resources that Mars already has — whether liquid water that might exist far below the surface or the carbon dioxide that predominates in the thin atmosphere. As Robert Zubrin, author of “The Case for Mars,” and president of the Mars Society has argued, an unmanned spacecraft loaded with liquid hydrogen could be sent ahead of potential Mars-stronauts. Upon landing, processors aboard the craft would react the hydrogen with atmospheric carbon dioxide to produce water and oxygen that those Mars-stronauts could utilize when they landed.

So lift a glass of your favorite libation to salute the spacecraft en route for a desert planet in search for the water of life. They might find clues to Earth’s past. They should find keys to its future.

Charles Rousseaux is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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