NASA just confirmed something incredible: There’s water flowing on Mars today. But what does that mean for life on the red planet today—both the life that may already be present, as well as the life we could bring by building a colony there?
The water found on Mars isn’t exactly like the water we find on Earth; it’s a perchlorate brine, which lets the water flow in Mars’ freezing temperatures. Still, even as part of a brine, it is water, and the presence of water means something perhaps even more incredible than the original announcement: “Everywhere we go where there is liquid water, we find life,” NASA’s planetary director Jim Green said of the news.
So, does this mean Mars could host life?
To be clear, no life has yet been found on Mars. But the confirmation of water gives us quite a few clues we didn’t have before, and the most valuable one may be a better place to start looking for it.
Scientists have long believed that Mars at one point—perhaps even now—held at least living microbes. But with a whole planet to look over, finding those was unlikely. Now, however, says Green, “We have a great site to look and to make that positive ID.” This news not only gives them a place to look; learning about the water could also offer suggestions into just how that survival was possible in an environment totally alien to life as we know it—much like how scientists were able to find out how it managed to unfreeze in freezing temperatures.
And that answer could be very close. With this announcement, NASA has already scheduled the next Mars rover in 2020 to bring back samples to look for life in, whether those be “chemical fossils” or perhaps something a little newer. That process is further complicated, though, by the fact that NASA has promised to keep its rovers clear of the flowing water site, to avoid contaminating it with the microbes still hanging on it from Earth.
But the question of life on Mars isn’t just one of whether we can find life already on the planet, it’s also whether life we send there could survive. In other words, does this news mean we’re closer to colonizing Mars?
The water on Mars may not be precisely drinkable, at least in its current form, but just the fact that it’s there and currently flowing drastically ups what we could potentially do on that planet.
Mars is looking “more and more like a potential habitat,” NASA administrator and former astronaut John Grunsfeld said before going on to tick off just a few of the resources a colony could now expect on Mars: flowing water, nitrogen from the atmosphere, the potential to grow crops in a Martian greenhouse.
The presence of water also does one other thing—it gives us a potential way station to refuel in, either for a journey home or perhaps further outwards. “What’s water? Well, it’s hydrogen and oxygen. That’s what we make rocket fuel out of,” said Grunsfeld.
So how far are we from this Martian colony? Grunsfeld didn’t pin a date, but said that it was “near future” level. Green was a little more cautious about the timeline, which he put at “many, many years away,” adding, “this isn’t Star Trek. We learn everything about the place before we send people there.”