New Martian Canals

Starting in 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli thought he had seen long straight features on surface of Mars. He called these features, which later turned into out to be an optical illusion, canali in Italian meaning channels. This was mistranslated into canals and led not only science fiction authors to wax poetic about surface water and ancient civilisations but Percival Lowell to build his observatory near Flagstaff.

Today NASA held a very important press conference. As reported by the Washington Post and the New York Times , researchers are saying they have found evidence of liquid water on the surface of Mars; not surface water from millions of years ago – surface water today – now. Usually I would then give the floor to the Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait. But, since he has decided it would be appropriate to pose for non-profit sort of for-profit but for a really good cause adventure featuring partial nudity and skepticality, I will go instead to the excellent space exploration blogger and new mother Emily Lakdawalla from the Planetary Society.

Newly released images from Mars Global Surveyor contain telltale deposits left behind by liquid water flowing on the surface within the few years that the spacecraft surveyed Mars.  Scientists had previously announced the discovery of features that must have been carved by water within the last several million years, but this is the first evidence that water has flowed on Mars’ surface while humans have been studying it.

“Ten years ago, Mars scientists were talking about water billions of years ago.  Five years ago, [Mike Malin and Ken Edgett] were talking about water millions of years ago.  I think now we can honestly talk about liquid water on the surface of Mars today.  And that revolution in our thinking truly has changed how we view Mars and how we should think about exploring Mars,” said scientist Phil Christensen at a press conference held today at NASA Headquarters.

Wow. I mean wow.

Ok. The features found are gullies and not canals. But for all of my anti-people-in-space snark, this would be a very important step toward being able to send people on Mars (and be able to get them back).

For the scientists, perhaps just as interesting is the new information about the number of new craters found. Again from Emily’s article,

At the same press conference, Mike Malin, lead scientist for Mars Global Surveyor’s camera systems, unveiled new sets of “before” and “after” shots of newly formed small impact craters.  “We had not anticipated, though we probably should have, that we could actually see craters forming,” Malin said.  “Given the extended duration of the Mars Global Surveyor mission, up to nine years, we could have hypothesized that we might be able to see them, but we didn’t.  So this was a completely serendipitous discovery.”

Malin stated that as a result of a systematic survey, they had found a total of 20 new craters in images covering the 30 percent of Mars that they were able to photograph twice.  Two of the areas were even imaged twice by the highest-resolution camera, permitting detailed analysis of how the surface had been changed by the asteroid impact.

This is really important because it allows scientists to remotely judge the geographic activity on the face of Mars. By comparing the number of new craters formed per year to the number of craters currently visible, one can make an estimate of how ‘old’ certain areas on the Martian surface are. This gives feedback on Martian geologic activity. Cool.

You might know that the Mars Globel Surveyor went silent about three weeks ago. From what I gather, NASA assumes that one of the solar panels malfunctioned and the space craft was unable to remain in the appropriate orbit. This was the end of one of the most productive missions to another planet. If the MGS is gone, at least it went out with a bang.

So perhaps Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury got it wrong when they talked about the Martian Canals. But maybe Carl Sagan was more prophetic when he quipped “Whatever the reason you’re on Mars, I’m glad you’re there, and I wish I was with you.” And you might be standing next to a canal gully full of water.

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