- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2004

When launching Spirit and Opportunity to Mars, NASA scientists followed the dicta “follow the water,” since the substance is so critical for life to arise and survive. They have now found it. Yesterday, NASA Associate Administrator Ed Weiler announced that Opportunity had landed in an area “where liquid water once drenched the surface” of the desiccated, dusty planet.

The clues were collected at a rocky outcrop known as El Capitan, located close to the probe’s landing site in the Meridiani Planum area, which was selected for its high concentrations of hematite, a mineral that often forms in the presence of liquid water. Opportunity spent about 10 days examining the formation with its sophisticated instrument package, discovering sulfate salts in such high concentrations that they almost certainly formed in water; indentations of salt crystals common to rocks in briny water and crossbedded layers of rock likely caused by water action.

Opportunity found no signs of life, but Mr. Weiler noted that the area “would have been a good habitable environment for some period of time.” The probe may find clues of life, or at least additional evidence of water as its planned 90-day mission continues.

Scientists believe that Mars had a warm and wet environment for about a billion years after it formed 4.6 billion years ago. Liquid water may have persisted on its surface for up to 1.5 billion years after that.

During that time, it is possible — but far from certain — that life formed on the planet. Complex life forms are unlikely, but little red bacteria are possible. On earth, bacteria known as “extremophiles” have been found in wildly inhospitable places — in dark, cold ocean depths, in the boiling acidic water of hot springs and deep beneath the earth’s surface. On Mars, simple, small microbes might still persist in underground springs or beneath ice caps.

To finish the story will require human scientists on the Martian soil — to determine if some form of life developed or even flourished in the water that once flowed and pooled. For all of Opportunity’s sophistication, it is still limited in fundamental ways. Men and women must solve the mysteries that machines cannot.

In mid-January, President Bush outlined a new vision for NASA, of sending astronauts to the moon, to Mars and even beyond. Congress should take the opportunity to follow his lead — to send humans thirsty for knowledge to ancient oases.

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