- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 27, 2004

What has long been red was once a bit blue — and perhaps even tinged with green. This week NASA scientists announced the discovery of convincing evidence that the Opportunity rover is rolling across what once was an ancient shoreline on Mars.

While they are unsure exactly when it was there or how long it lasted, researchers are now certain that water at least a couple of inches deep once sloshed over the area where Opportunity is exploring. A variety of geological features on Mars had led scientists to suspect that the planet once had water rushing across the surface. Earlier this month, NASA scientists announced the first direct evidence that Mars was soaked with water, but it was not clear if that water had pooled underground or flowed across the surface.

Several different lines of evidence showed that the water was on the surface. Close-up photographs of a chunk of rock called “Last Chance” showed ancient ripples — crossbedded and festooned layers, both of which are characteristic of sediments shaped by water. The concentrations of chlorine and bromine found in the rocks supported the hypothesis.

That sea also implies that Mars was once warmer. Warmth and wetness are both conducive to the development of life. As Steven Squyres, the principle science investigator for the mission, said, “This was a habitable environment. It’s a salt flat. These are the kinds of environments that are very suitable for life.”

That waves washed across the surface opens the possibility that life forms using photosynthesis for energy (as some bacteria and plants do on earth) might even have arisen. Scientists had previously conjectured that any Martian life that might have arisen would have been dependent on chemical energy, which would have limited it in basic ways. Aside from Earth, the only other planet in the solar system known to have liquid water is Jupiter’s moon, Europa. In the next decade, NASA’s Icy Moons Orbiter will examine that ocean in greater detail. Human pioneers may eventually follow there after they have explored the ancient seas of Mars.

It will take humans to find whatever life may once have arisen in those ancient seas. Even though Opportunity and Spirit, its twin, are both expected to operate long past their planned three-month missions, neither is expected to find direct evidence of life.

NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe said, “Opportunity’s latest science returns have profound implications for future exploration,” adding, “in due course … human explorers will follow.” Congress could put NASA on that path by taking the fundamental first step of fully funding the president’s new vision for human exploration in next year’s budget.

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