Researchers pinpoint site where search for life on Mars could begin

Researchers have found a patch of land in an ancient valley on Mars that they believe is of significant interest  in the search for signs of past life forms on the Red Planet.

The site discovered by researchers from Trinity College Dublin was flooded by water in the not-too-distant past, and the suggestion that water was once present at the site means that it may be of particular interest during future missions to the Mars.

“These findings are hugely significant,” said Dr Mary Bourke of Trinity College Dublin. “Firstly, the Martian sand dunes show evidence that water may have been active near Mars’ equator – potentially in the not-too-distant past. And secondly, this location is now a potential geological target for detecting past life forms on the Red Planet, which is important to those involved in selecting sites for future missions.”

The discovery on Mars was made possible by the team from Trinity College’s previous study of the Namib Desert.

In a remote sensing study of the Namib Desert, the researchers had previously noted the same patterns occuring between migrating sand dunes.

Fieldwork subsequently showed that these patterns – described by the searchers as “arcuate striations” – were a consequence of dune sediments being left behind once groundwater had evaporated. These dune sediments later were found to be relatively immobile, which means they are left behind as the dunes continue to migrate downwind.

“On Earth, desert dunefields are periodically flooded by water in areas of fluctuating groundwater, and where lakes, rivers and coasts are found in proximity. These periodic floods leave tell-tale patterns behind them,” said Bourke.

“You can imagine our excitement when we scanned satellite images of an area on Mars and saw this same patterned calling card, suggesting that water had been present in the relatively recent past.”

The finding on Mars come just weeks after NASA described current plans for a manned mission to Mars as “fragile”, and called for the establishment of a “Marz Czar” or a specialist mission office to adequate preparations were put in place for an unprecedented mission to the Red Planet.

The hypothesis proposed by Trinity College researchers may give fresh impetus to the search for life on Mars.

“Following our work in Namibia, we hypothesise that on Mars, similar arcuate striations [patterns] exposed on the surface between dunes are also indications of fluctuating levels of salty groundwater, during a time when dunes were actively migrating down the valley.”

The researchers’ full findings are available in Geophysical Research Letters.

As Donald Trump takes office as President, there are several big questions to be asked about what direction his policies will take. As yet, we haven’t heard much about what the new administration plans for the US’ efforts in space. We explore what the Trump administration may mean for NASA

“We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow.”

So said the freshly inaugurated President Donald Trump during his speech on Friday, sending a perhaps surprisingly pro-science, if somewhat vague, message to those listening. And while the categorisation of a new millennium is somewhat off, it’s interesting that Trump seems determined to push for advancements in space. Given the big goals NASA is in the midst of trying to accomplish, it is promising that there is at least an overtone of presidential support.

That support will be necessary given the ambition of programmes such as the Mars mission. NASA are currently building the necessary rocket in-house, but it is possible Trump’s administration, given their business-friendly nature, may instead choose to have NASA make use of SpaceX’s in-development heavy-lift rocket.

“The next president is inheriting a space program that has this nascent ambition to go to Mars but doesn’t have hardware actually flying yet,” Casey Dreier, director of space policy at The Planetary Society, told Space.com in November. “

So there’s a lot of opportunity for the next administration to say, ‘Should we continue these [programs]? What will the direction be? Do we want to commit to supporting these programs as is? Do we change them? Do we cancel them?’ … So it’s a big question mark.”

An Expansionist Outlook

There is a certain space race vibe to Trump’s approach to the future of the US in space; a combination of nationalism and a belief in industry that could see the administration funnel cash and support into NASA programmes. It is possible this may come about through private-public partnerships, such as with SpaceX, but either way should result in a more robust space programme.

Image courtesy of Andrew Cline / Shutterstock.com. Featured image courtesy of JStone / Shutterstock.com

The fear, however, is that the efforts of NASA to explore space may be boosted at the expense of their programmes on our own planet. Given the incoming administration’s at times flat-out denial of climate change, there is a strong chance that NASA’s Earth Sciences Mission Directorate could have its $2bn funding stripped to be directed towards expanding space programmes.  

“NASA should be focused primarily on deep-space activities rather than Earth-centric work that is better handled by other agencies,” Robert S Walker and Peter Navarro, both senior advisers to the Trump campaign, wrote in an opinion piece published in SpaceNews before the election.

“Human exploration of our entire solar system by the end of this century should be NASA’s focus and goal.”

As for the President himself, outside of his inaugural speech, his view is slightly less clear. He has previously expressed excitement for the idea of privatisation in the space industry and critiqued President Obama’s approach to NASA.

“It is very sad to see what @BarackObama has done with NASA. He has gutted the program and made us dependent on the Russians,” he tweeted in August 2012. but at the same time seems reluctant to commit to a huge investment in the space agency. When questioned on NASA’s budget, Trump said “our first priority is to restore a strong economic base to this country. Then, we can have a discussion about spending.”

Capitalising the Cosmos

A primary Trump policy is putting America first. That means American business and American workers fueling the American economy over any outsourcing or importation of foreign talent. Given that the foremost private space efforts are primarily American (Space X, Blue Origin), and Trump is notoriously business-first, it makes sense that the idea of private industry leading the way into the next generation of space exploration would be exciting to the new President.

Image courtesy of SpaceX.

During a town hall in New Hampshire, Trump said that he “likes that maybe even better” when discussing the prospect of a private space programme as opposed to a public one and though he couched it in wanting to first prioritise infrastructure, he did also call the idea of a manned mission to Mars “wonderful”. Given that privatising such efforts allows him to push off the responsibility, and certain costs, from the government, it also allows him to boast of a combined cost cut and American industry boost.

Perhaps most notably, Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, made two trips to Trump Tower during the transition period. According to the Washington Post, it seems that Musk discussed how private-public partnerships could help prime NASA for manned missions to Mars. Having probably the most prominent private space entrepreneur meeting with Trump one-on-one certainly suggests that the announcement of a NASA/SpaceX partnership may be on the cards for the administration.  

Into the Unknown

There are still a lot of decisions to be made in the coming months as the new administration settles into its role, and there’s a strong chance that NASA won’t be at the top of the list of priorities.

It’s not exactly a new problem, given the problems on our own soil; it’s often hard to convince people that billions should be spent firing probes into space. However, it’s hard to argue that the world isn’t better off for having a robust and well-funded NASA, whether it be for its exploration programmes or any of its other diverse efforts.

It certainly seems that there is an enthusiasm for the idea of buoying American interests in space but it may be that this is done so more via the promotion of private companies than public agencies.

Those behind NASA’s programmes should certainly feel concerned as to where they will be headed under Trump, it seems likely that even if they gain support in some areas it will be at great cost in others.