Yesterday, NASA announced (#MarsAnnouncement) that there is clear and compelling evidence for liquid water on present-day Mars. Flash news: we’ve known about this “evidence for water” since we’ve been orbiting Mars, for several decades now. There’s water in the Interstellar Medium, in the atmosphere of Jupiter, under the frozen crust of Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, under the crust of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, frozen in the permanent night of one of the polar craters of our own moon and in many other places! So, why should it come as any surprise that Mars has water? The Martian “features” that are the highlight of this announcement are the dry channels, tributaries and river beds observed in images acquired by HiRISE, aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). HiRISE, aboard MRO, launched in 2005, was quick to observe these same features in exquisite detail upon its arrival; where was the hype then?
The question, then, begs asking: why now, why are they making this announcement now? For starters, tomorrow (9/30), the Federal Fiscal year ends. Remember all the drama surrounding the retirement of John Boehner, the speaker of the House of Representatives, ostensibly retiring to prevent a government shutdown, for “the good of the institution”? Poppycock! No such altruism exists; no one in a position such as his got there through altruism. He’s doing it for his own reasons; who knows, maybe he’s the Dark Horse that will announce his candidacy for president since all of the other Republicans are buffoons who aren’t fit for the job; maybe he will be the “October Surprise”; who knows. And he used the visit of Pope Francis as an occasion to make this announcement, citing personal, internal conflicts about the timing of the announcement, that he wasn’t sure, etc. Nonsense! Don’t forget that he was the one who invited the Pope to speak before congress. Now, with that in mind, let’s get back to the original question: Why does NASA make this announcement now when we’ve known about these dried river beds and channels for decades? The evidence for flowing water on Mars isn’t news; it’s all about money!
NASA has to make the case for a manned mission to Mars. The JWST is over budget and behind schedule by 3 years; the HST, the flagship space telescope that has blazed new frontiers in astronomy is aging quickly and we have no low-earth orbiting vehicles to effect any new servicing missions. The world’s leading superpower, the same one who put a man on the moon, does not have a program to attain low earth orbit! The Kepler mission to find Earthlike planets in the habitable zones of their host stars is functioning on borrowed time (quite literally – this is Kepler’s “Second Life” phase, having lost a critical “reaction wheel” in 2013, the mission came back online through the ingenuity of NASA engineers – kudos to them). The fundamental reason for the space agency’s existence is, after all, the search for life and to establish a sustainable habitat on a Terra Nova. New Horizons at Pluto performed brilliantly but the show is over now and NASA needs to justify their budget and their very existence. Who is thinking about Mars and space exploration when there is talk of a government shutdown?! What better way than to promise a “Surprise Discovery” at the end of September, knowing full well that the fiscal year ends at that very same time when budgets are being debated. Would they continue to operate if the threatened government shutdown actually came to pass? If they could announce that they had found life on Mars, or discovery of the next best thing, the one necessary ingredient for Carbon-based life, our kind of life, then they would almost be assured of a blank federal check for years to come. Why, you may ask? Because the bean counters in Washington aren’t astronomers or scientists and aren’t informed of such details. Who would dare oppose a manned mission to Mars when we’ve discovered water there!? And this was done on the heels of Boehner’s announcement and the Pope’s visit. Just one more item on the list of hypes that we’ve been witness to this past week. Put it all together and no one will question that “We have found water on Mars”. To announce the discovery of water right on the heels of the brilliant performance of New Horizons at Pluto would be a home run and that is exactly what they did.
Everyone has bought into the hype from Google to all the major news networks and, not surprisingly, many “former” NASA astronauts who were oh, so keen to make the obligatory celebrity appearance. No surprise here, most people aren’t informed about anything above their heads; Google is too busy acting as a proxy spy agency for the government, so they didn’t do their homework – they should have known all about this, instead they produced this ridiculous “Doodle” of Mars sucking water through a straw. Some early morning “news” programs jumped in as did many others with an audience. What’s so sad is that the only time more than just a few individuals “look up” is when nature puts on a show like #SuperBloodMoon: (https://astronomytopicoftheday.wordpress.com/2015/09/26/septembers-super-bloodmoon).
Announcing the discovery of water on Mars comes as no surprise and kudos to all those involved in the “discovery”; give it the coverage it deserves, a sidebar on page 5, not headline news on the front page of The New York Times.