NASA is planning a huge Mars announcement tomorrow, widely presumed to be related to water on the Red Planet. Evidence of water would be a big indicator that life existed on Mars (or still does) so the implications of the announcement are far-reaching.
When NASA reveals their big secret tomorrow, there are a ladder of potential outcomes. Below are some of the possibilities we’ve come up with. Obviously, some of these are far more likely than others.
- Evidence of water on Mars (surface and/or subsurface).
- Fossilized evidence of life living on Mars in the past.
- Life currently exists on Mars.
- Proof of an ancient civilization that lived on Mars.
To arrive at these conclusions, NASA scientists rely on a variety of spacecraft to validate their findings. Here are the active spacecraft operating on or around our Martian neighbor:
Curiosity, also known as the Mars Science Laboratory, is the nuclear powered, SUV-sized, six-wheeled robot that landed on Mars in 2012. Originally designed for a two-year mission, Curiosity’s activities have since been extended indefinitely. The big rover’s array of instruments are able to detect organic carbon, although they can’t detect actual life.
Launched alongside the now-dormant Spirit Rover in 2003, the Opportunity Rover soldiers on far beyond its original 90 sol lifespan (talk about a return on investment!) Originally designed to analyze rocks and soils for water content, Opportunity has been re-tasked with searching for evidence of ancient life on Mars since 2014.
Launched in 2013, the MAVEN spacecraft arrived in Martian orbit last year to study the atmosphere. MAVEN is attempting to determine what happened to the water that scientists widely presume to have been plentiful on Mars in the past. It also offers some value as a communications relay node for rovers on the surface, although its highly elliptical orbit makes it more of a backup to transmit these signals.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) was launched in 2005 and arrived in orbit around Mars in 2006. Not unlike reconnaissance satellites orbiting Earth, MRO is loaded with sensors (such as the HiRISE camera, which is the largest reflecting telescope ever carried on a deep space mission) that can peer down into the planet’s atmosphere and even below its surface. MRO also functions as a primary relay node for communications between ground stations on Earth and the rover vehicles on the Martian surface.
Mars Express arrived in polar orbit around the Red Planet in 2003, and is tasked with studying the Martian atmosphere, surface and sub-surface. The mission’s primary objective is to search for water below the surface, which it does using a giant radar instrument called MARSIS (short for the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionospheric Sounding). While NASA has participated in the Mars Express mission, it was designed by their colleagues in the European Space Agency (ESA) and Italian Space Agency.
Odyssey is the longest serving spacecraft on or around Mars, having arrived at our celestial neighbor in... you guessed it, 2001. While also acting as a communications relay for the various spacecraft on and around Mars, Odyssey is hunting for evidence of water with spectrometers and thermal imaging instruments.
NASA’s been using all of these tools at their disposal for years, and humanity as a whole has been studying our neighbor for centuries. Whether or not flowing water has actually been found, it would be one major step closer to the holy grail of astrobiology – that of extraterrestrial life. But none of the tools we’ve used would be any good without the people behind it. And in an announcement like this, the people themselves give us hints as to what might be in store. Per NASA’s press release, these scientists include:
- Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters
- Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters
- Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta
- Mary Beth Wilhelm of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California and the Georgia Institute of Technology
- Alfred McEwen, principal investigator for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) at the University of Arizona in Tucson
The inclusion of Lujendra Ojha from Georgia Tech is a likely indicator that NASA’s big announcement pertains to water. Ojha and others authored a 2015 paper which purports to confirm the presence of salty water flows on the surface during the Martian warm season. This activity, also called recurring slope lineae, suggests that water once existed in abundance on Mars’ surface, but it remains uncertain where exactly that water is now.
Have we missed any potential angles on tomorrow’s announcement? What do you think we’ll learn from NASA’s big reveal? To watch the announcement live, check in with NASA Television or catch the live stream on NASA’s website. Things are scheduled to get started at 11:30 a.m. EDT.
One last thing to keep in mind: October 4th through 10th is the official United Nations’ World Space Week. In honor of this global focus on spaceflight, which here at Flight Club we believe is mankind’s greatest achievement as a species, we’ll be brining you a new space-related story every day.
Photo credit: Top shot - European Southern Observatory/M. Kornmesse via Wikicommons, Curiosity Rover Artist’s Concept - NASA/JPL-Caltech via Wikicommons, Opportunity Rover synthetic image - NASA/JPL-Solar System Visualization Team via Wikicommons, MAVEN Artist’s Concept - NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center via Wikicommons, MRO Artist’s Concept - NASA/JPL/Corby Waste via Wikicommons, Mars Express Artist’s Concept - NASA/JPL/Corby Waste via Wikicommons, 2001 Mars Odyssey Artist’s Concept - NASA/JPL/Corby Waste via Wikicommons
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