Water, Today's Holy Grail

Hey! They got the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter into just the right position to begin the aerobraking that will snug it up close to that planet by October. The technical challenges to put it there were enormous, compounded by Mars's seeming hostility toward visitors. It has eaten several in the past five years. I suspect it tolerates Spirit and Opportunity because their mission is so loosely defined: Use your sensors to tell us back here what's out there. The Orbiter will be wearing blinders.

From news accounts running in the popular press (that is to say, the paper you read every day) the orbiter's assignment is narrow: Find evidence of ancient water and find the SpAces a place to land. We, those of us who file tax returns every April, are supporting, to the tune of $720 million, an evaluation of an extraterrestrial campsite? I think not. So why the mania abut finding water on Mars? Or the Moon, for that matter?

The Science and the Fantasy
I cannot bring myself to believe that any bona fide scientist or engineer, however much a fan of a particularly well-conceived trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, thinks that evidence of a now-vanished water supply means anything other than that: Once there was water. On Mars. Or one of Jupiter's ever-increasing lunar entourage. (Recent reports from Enceladus look interesting too.)

In the scientific construct or parallel world of a former vice president, the fissures on Mars, described as "canali" in 1877 by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schaparalli, somehow underwent yet another mis-translation from channels into canals and thence into a greater leap: Canals mean water. And water means breathable atmosphere. So we can live up there! Or words to that effect. All Schaparalli intended to convey was that there were channels of some sort; he did not speculate as to their origin.

The Extended Fantasy
Can water create life all on its own? I am not about to get into a wrangle with religion here, but I will say that a little something more is necessary for this to happen: Amino acids. And maybe some electrical activity. Favorable climates. In short, all the conditions needed to be just right for us to be here now and reading (or, on my part, writing, this).

This trumpeted search for water on other celestial bodies has acquired some strange overtones. One is that scientific missions are being told what they will find Or Else. (But what are they going to do, fire or demote the Orbiter if it doesn't get its job done?) Another is that we seem to be entering an age of extreme loneliness. If there were water somewhere else, might there have been (or still be) life and so on. We keep hoping for what could be friends out there, even if we would never recognize one on the street.

There is yet one more bummer of a futuristic note that deserves sounding here: Maybe water will be become a major import to our entire planet. Let's all get out our calculators and figure out whether such an enterprise would be cheaper than cleaning up the water supplies we've fouled right here on Earth and staying away from what's still pure.

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