New Castle News
NEW CASTLE — Bit by bit, the secrets of Mars are being revealed.
We have Curiosity to thank for most of that these days. The NASA rover has just celebrated its first year on the Red Planet, and in many ways, it’s just getting started.
Curiosity has been working its way to Mount Sharp, a Martian mountain close to its landing site. Scientists believe the structure of the 18,000-foot mountain could preserve chemical signs of life.
Unfortunately, Curiosity lacks the ability to identify actual life or fossilized evidence of it. Rather, it must look for chemical signals that are the equivalent of circumstantial evidence. But there is always the concern chemical markers for life actually may be showing something else.
Curiosity’s journey to Mount Sharp has been a leisurely one, about 100 yards a day, as the rover’s handlers are being careful, but are also interested in what’s observed along the way.
This included the discovery of pebbles — a seemingly mundane matter here on Earth. But locating these small stones on Mars is perhaps the most telling evidence to date that water once flowed on the planet
Water is crucial to life and the possibility it once existed — or still exists — on Mars is big news. If the planet does have life, it’s presumably microscopic in nature. But it’s conceivable more advanced forms existed in the distant past if the planet’s environment was more hospitable.
Water on the Red Planet doesn’t simply present the astounding possibility of life there. It also suggests that life may be plentiful in the universe. If it arose independently on two planets in a single solar system, that dramatically increases the likelihood it will be found elsewhere.
In addition, water on Mars would make it much easier for humans to establish a colony or base there. Water can be used to produce oxygen, raise crops and assist with maintaining a permanent base there without the expense of transporting resources from Earth.
A manned mission to Mars represents the most ambitious plans NASA has for space. That’s particularly so when you consider the space agency has no manned craft of any sort in operation right now.
And as Curiosity and other unmanned projects continue to provide plenty of interesting data and detail about the solar system and universe, the significance of sending humans into space may wane. That’s especially true when you consider that Curiosity’s $2.5 billion dollar price tag is a fraction of what it would cost to send human beings to Mars and bring them back.
But we have no doubt that humans will continue their outward push. It is, after all, a big part of what we do. Whatever lies over the horizon is a discovery waiting to be explored.