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Science, Maths & Technology

Water on Mars?

Updated Monday, 22nd January 2007

Andrew Morris describes some recent developments in astronomy - the detection of what might be water on Mars and a map of dark matter.

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Although I only briefly heard a headline on the radio as I left the house, a while back now, I was still pretty excited to hear that NASA believes it has found the most compelling evidence for water on Mars than ever before. All sorts of things were going through my head on the walk into work before I got to read more of the story. Would this change NASA's priorities from a return to the Moon? Would NASA's commitments to a lunar base leave the door open for a sneaky European mission to the red planet? Would these findings end up being erroneous and actually inhibit future exploration?

looking through the headlines and news stories more closely it is indeed the most compelling indication of water on Mars but unfortunately,  it is far from conclusive.  The conditions on Mars with its low temperature and pressure enable other compounds to act in a manner that on Earth we would find intuitive of liquid water. This is not to say NASA would overlook this, it's just water is not the only possible reason for the observations, leaving the door wide open for future investigation and in the meantime, debate. As the for and against start to discuss/argue the point further I couldn't help feeling something for the timing of these new images.

The Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) space craft, launched in November 1996, is the reason why these images exist at all. The mission far surpassed its designed operational lifetime of two years and only recently it is feared lost due to a loss of communication on the 21st of Nov. When you consider the two images taken which show this outflow, of whatever, are taken seven years from one another it makes for quite a good swan song for this mostly forgotten orbiter. Also, since so much data is generated from a mission such as the MGS it is quite possible that the mission itself may still provide further words on the issue as the back log is investigated.

There is practically a whole armada of space craft that should have made it to Mars (MGS's main objectives were to make up for lost science due to a previous failed mission) but it is good to see the ones that make it can still go out on a high note. Additional to all of this is that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has just completed it's aerobraking, entering its planned orbit around Mars. This particular piece of kit has the best resolution yet of any orbiter and is able to pick out the tracks and shadows of the masts caused by the Mars rovers. It should be very interesting when it has a gander at those gullies.

Since everybody likes pictures, here are some highlights of the MGS mission.

Another thing that really had an impact on me recently was the newly released 3D dark matter map. I easily get caught up in my own little world while working on one problem or another; however taking time out to really appreciate what had been accomplished was a welcome distraction.

I still find it amazing that we actually know so little about the Universe we exist within. True enough, we now know how the Sun provides as much energy as it does, why the sky is blue and why it is always a bad idea to put a frog in a microwave but we still don’t truly know what most of the Universe is made of. We have given the missing parts names, Dark Matter and Dark Energy, but really that’s the limit of our knowledge. That’s why this new work stopped me in my tracks when I read about it. This shows the work we are doing is breaking down what we don’t know bit by bit until; hopefully the final answer will drop out at the end.

This is made all the more amazing when the size and position of the Dark Matter could only be inferred to since the stuff itself does not emit or deflect light, hence the dark part of its name. The matter part of its name actually gives the method in which it can be found since the path of the light which moves nearby and past the dark matter will be ‘bent’ slightly due to the matters effective mass. This bending has been detected by use of the Hubble Space Telescope and all the observations were put together to make this astounding ‘scaffold’ of the observable Universe.

I think the best news story out there on this is the one given by the BBC, find it here





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