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Look up! There’s water, water everywhere…

WaterPlanet

…or so it seems! Unless you’ve been living in a cave on Miranda the past week you’ll know that last Thursday there were two big announcements concerning the discovery of water “out there” in the solar system- well, one big, in fact one HUGE announcement, and one not-so-big-but-WAS-ACTUALLY-MORE-IMPORTANT!!! announcement. The first one came after a day of feverish speculation across the internet, fed, as is usual now, by Twitter. Rumours were circulating all through the previous day, Wednesday, that there was” big news” from the Moon, that something had been found on it. No-one was suggesting it was a black monolith, or anything like that, but Something Was Definitely Going On, and everyone was really impatient to hear what it was, and we were all counting down the hours until the media conference began on NASA TV on Thursday evening (UK time) when the beans would be spilled, so to speak. Many science journalists already knew what the news was – they are briefed in advance of big announcements like this to give them time to prepare their stories – but they couldn’t say anything because the story was “embargoed”, i.e. they were all under strict instructions to keep their great traps shut –  until the press conference began. And so, like many people, I sat here, at this very computer, frequently refreshing my Twitter page, happy to follow the speculation, just killing time until the embargo was lifted…

Of course, someone blabbed, didn’t they – most people seem to agree it was a journalist based in India – and then the story broke over the internet like a tidal wave. Soon everyone knew what it was, and it was fascinating: no fewer than three different spaceprobes had found undeniable proof of the existence of water, or at least a form of water, on the Moon!

Moon. Water. Water… on the Moon.

Gulp!

This was Big News because we have always thought that the Moon was staggeringly dry, I mean “drier than a bone that’s been baked in an oven for a  year” dry, and that any water there was going to be found lurking in very small quantities on the floors of steep-sided polar craters, in the form of “dirty ice”, or really just soil that was “a bit icy”. To hear that the Moon had actual water, on its surface, was a textbook-ripping-up event. Soon the story was everywhere, being forwarded, copied and “re-tweeted”, and by the time the NASA TV event began only the few penguins living at the south pole without internet access didn’t know what was going on. The media feeding frenzy was quite incredible, and if you read or listened to some of the more breathless reports you honestly would have thought lakes or even oceans had been discovered on the Moon, such was the level of excitement.

The truth, of course, was rather less exciting.

I’m not going to go into all the chemistry of the story, you know, the technical stuff about elements and nuclear bonds and atoms, etc, I’ll leave that to Emily Lakdawalla to explain, over on her always-wonderful-to-read Planetary Society blog, where you’ll find a brilliant two part disection of the hard scientific facts behind the story, but to put it simply, what had actually been found on the Moon were traces of water, molecules of water, i.e. tiny, tiny amounts of water, all mixed up in the very top dusty layer of the Moon’s surface, spread thinly across vast areas of it. This meant that the Moon was still far, far drier than the driest desert on Earth, just a little less so than we’d thought previously. So the BBC’s claim that the Moon was “damp” was at best misleading and, at worst, bang-your-head-against-the-wall-in-frustration stupid.

Actually, that’s a bit unfair. This really was a big news story, a huge news story, because it does, in a way, mean that human exploration, and ultimately settlement, of the Moon will be easier than we’d all previously thought, because there is water there to be mined and used as a resource, and it’s not going to need climbing gear to get to it. But really, the level of hype enjoyed by the story was completely unjustified, especially when there was actually an even bigger water-related story waiting in the wings – but more of that later…

So, let’s get this straight. The Moon is NOT slopping about in water; there are no great puddles on it to splish and splosh through like a kid in yellow plastic wellies; there are no splodgy pools of lunar mud to squelch through; future lunar astronauts will not need to wear wellington boots or fishermen’s waders when they explore, and they won’t leave great dirty muddy footprints on the airlock floor when they return to base after a hard day of collecting rocks and samples, ok?

boots

This “water” isn’t really water as we know it, or as we think of it, it’s not even remotely a “dampness”. It’s a chemical trace or signature of molecules, and if you were standing on the Moon but didn’t have the special instruments required to detect it , you wouldn’t have a clue it was there. You’d see no glistening dewdrops on the rocks around you, no rivulets of crystal clear water trickling around, between or over the ancient boulders standing on the landscape. The Moon hasn’t suddenly been revealed to be an Earth-orbiting Brigadoon, a lush green valley with ponds and streams and waterfalls; it’s still a dusty, lifeless desert, many times dustier, more lifeless and more dusty than even the most hospitable desert on Earth.

Let’s look at some figures, that will bring this all – ahem – down to Earth.

Okay… how much lunar soil, or dirt, would you have to collect and refine until you had collected from it enough water to fill a drinking glass? You ready for this? You’ll be surprised, and disappointed, I warn you… The answer is 730 square metres.

And if you wanted to fill a litre bottle of water, how much dirt would you have to mine? A tonne of it. A tonne!!

So, you see, the “water” there is not only hiding, and very good at it, but is in bits that would have to be gathered up and then put back together again before they could be used for anything useful.

So yes, this is good news, but contrary to what you might have heard, or read, we’re a long, long way away from being able to use it to make a lunar “Walnut Grove” and live off the land there, like the pioneers of the Old West. The only “discovery” that could possibly speed up the return of US astronauts to the Moon, and lead to its colonisation or commercialisation, would be this…

 oil

Sorry, but there it is.

However… on the very same night that the news about the “Water on the Moon” was announced, there was another announcement, one that, for some bizarre reason, didn’t get anywhere near as much publicity. Buried by the avalanche – or should I say flood? haha! – of coverage of Chandrayaan’s results was news that the Mars Reconaissance Orbiter probe had spotted ice on the surface of the red planet. Yes, ice. Real ice, ice as in “frozen water”. Not tonnes of dirt with a few molecules of water scattered through it, but the drop-into-a-glass cold stuff you could pick up, hold, and even suck on if you wanted to…

Ice Cube

Here’s what had happened. MRO had spotted several fresh new craters on Mars – and this time ‘fresh’ doesn’t mean ‘were made some time in the last twenty million years’ but were blasted out of Mars during the past year or so, as you can see from this pair of HiRISE images, taken just weeks apart…

388646main_mro20090922-600

The probe then began monitoring them, checking them and photographing them again to look for any changes – and it found them. In the original images, taken soon after they were formed, the new craters were either surrounded by, or had, at their centres, deposits of blue-white… stuff. In the later images, these deposits had either shrunk or vanished altogether. Look at this pair of MRO images of the same crater and you’ll see what I mean…

388654main_site2_fading 3months

Those two images were taken just 3 months apart, and show significant changes occurred inside that crater during that time. That alone would be enough to set alarm bells ringing. But further investigation and study showed that MRO had, this time, found one of the long-awaited Holy Grails of Mars exploration: water ice, underneath the surface of Mars, far away from the poles. Look at this next image and you’ll see we’re not just talking about traces of ice, not just meagre scrapings or fluffs of it, but large amounts of it, fridge freezer compartmentfuls of the stuff…

site3_10625_2360_200pc_50meters_across_preview

THIS news is potentially historic because it means that future martian explorers, settlers and colonists will have an almost embarrassing amount of water to use once they get there, right beneath their feet.

In a way this isn’t “news” as much as it’s another brick in the wall of our growing understanding of just how icy and wet a world Mars really is. We already knew Mars had a lot of ice: the poles are covered in layer after layer of it, Phoenix famously found ice in the dirt beneath it when it landed at the pole last year, and at least one crater near the north pole has been found to have a huge skating rink of the stuff inside it…

Mars_Ice_craterSMALL

(click here for a great 3D view of that crater)

But this discovery really is important because it proves that there is ice beneath the ground far away from the poles, across vast areas of Mars, most importantly in the very areas where the first manned expeditions will probably land.

So this is nothing less than absolutely incontravertible proof of the existence of useful, accessible water on Mars. Not “fake” water, not “false” water like the Moon’s molecule-thin film of ‘water’, but real water, albeit frozen. If you were a crew member of the first manned mission to Mars in 20Whenever you could step out of your lander, drop to your knees, dig down into the red dirt with your gloved fingers and claw out some genuine, honest to god water ice. You could lift it in your hand, hold it up to your faceplate and, with your own eyes, see it glistening and shining there as it sublimated away, eventually vanishing. How cool (sorry!) is that?!

Chandrayaan and other probes found water on the Moon, which is a fantastic achievement and the teams involved all deserve all the praise they’re receiving. But let’s get things in context: Chandrayaan found teaspoons of water spread out over thouands of miles of the Moon’s surface, that will take new technology and a monumental engineering effort to collect, refine and use. MRO has found bloody great frozen swimming pools of water just beneath huge areas of the planet, ice that future astronauts will be able to dig out and use almost right away.

Put it that way, which is the more important discovery?

Here are a few pictures I made, using the IAS Viewer to crop MRO images, showing some of these “smoking gun” craters…

ic1

wrth

Imagev2

I honestly get goosebumps looking at those..! 🙂

But that’s not the end of the story. It turns out that, if things had been just a little different,  this discovery could have been made more than three decades ago…

Back in 1976, on September 3rd to be precise, the US Viking 2 probe touched down in Utopia Planitia on Mars. Like Phoenix it had a robotic arm with a digging tool and scoop on the end, so it could dig a trench in the martian surface, gather up some of the material from beneath that surface and bring it onboard for analysis in a small but sophisticated chemistry set. Here’s an image showing one of the Phoenix-like trenches being dug by Viking 2 on Mars…

viking5

The robot arm then brought the dirt and rocks back onboard for testing. One of the main aims of the Viking mission was to look for life on Mars, and the hope was that the analysis of material from the trenches would turn up evidence of past life, or even life itself. Sadly, that didn’t happen – although, before anyone posts a comment about it, there is some controversy about those results – which was a crushing disappointment, and went a long way towards colouring that generation’s view of Mars as a cold, dry lifeless wasteland of a planet…

It now turns out that if Viking 2 had dug down just a little deeper, perhaps just a few inches deeper, it probably would have made a staggering discovery. Look at this chart…

Ice-depths-580x341

… and you’ll see that V2 landed at the same latitude as the craters (labelled “sites” on the image) revealed to have ice beneath them on those pictures unveiled to the world last week… so it’s more than possible that the Viking 2 team just missed out on what would have been one of the scientific triumphs of the decade – the discovery of subsurface water ice on Mars.

Just imagine, it’s September 1976, and several days after its successful landing, Viking 2 begins digging its trenches, and sends back this image…

v2 ice

The Viking 2 scientists can’t believe their eyes – that white/blue stuff in the trench… is that..? Could it be..? It is! It’s ICE! Viking 2 has found ice, frozen water, beneath the surface of Mars!!

It’s impossible not to play “What might have been…” here. What would have happened next? Which direction would Mars exploration have taken after such a discovery? When  the Vikings failed to find life on Mars, interest in the planet definitely fell off, both amongst the general public and within NASA itself. But if Viking 2 had dug up ice in 1976, which would have been very encouraging for the people convinced Mars could harbour life if it has water beneath its surface, surely public and scientific interest in Mars would have soared, and NASA would have focussed its attentions on the Red Planet instead of turning its eyes towards the outer solar system as it did. Then what..?

Perhaps a Viking 3 and a Viking 4 would have travelled to Mars in one of the next launch windows, equipped with better, stronger robot arms to allow them to dig even deeper, and more sophisticated chemical labs onboard to allow them to make a more thorough study of the soil samples in the hunt for life? Perhaps we’d have seen rovers on Mars a decade earlier, and a nuclear-powered “Spirit” or an “Opportunity” would have been roaming on Mars for a decade by now. It’s very likely that at least one international sample returm mission would have been undertaken, and that by now we’d be studying several pounds of Mars rocks in hi-tech laboratories around the world.

And maybe, just maybe, if Viking 2 had sent back this image…

vl2_sol957_959_compare2

… then we’d already have witnessed the historic first manned landing on Mars, instead of sitting here, heads in hands, listening to the Augustine Commission reporting how NASA’s cupboard is bare and wondering if we’ll even get to see people walking on Mars in our lifetimes…? 😦

I don’t know, there’s no way we can know. But personally I’m pretty sure that if Viking 2 had found ice on Mars, Mars exploration would have received such a boost, Mars exploration would have become so ‘sexy’, that we would have found out by now if there is life on Mars. I just feel that in my gut.

And feelings are important when it comes to the aftermath of discoveries like this. As I was finishing this post, and uploading it onto WordPress, I happened to look out the window – and there was the Moon, almost at First Quarter, hanging just above the roof of the house opposite my flat. After this latest announcement I wanted it to look different, to feel different, to move me in a new way… but it didn’t. I so wanted it to look… I don’t know, bluer? More alive? I wanted it to inspire me all over again,  to make me, even if it was only for a second, forget my beloved Mars and feel love for the Moon…

But it was just the same old Moon, a mottled, lemony-blue-grey ball, glowing in the butterscotch-hued southern sky of a Cumbrian autumn sunset.   My feelings for the Moon haven’t changed one bit.

But I know that when I get up early tomorrow morning, and hunt down Mars, shining in the brightening eastern sky like a tiny red garnet, my love for it will be even stronger, and standing on the dewey grass I’ll marvel at the thought of all that lovely, lovely ice hiding just beneath the surface… and I’ll wonder if there’s anything living within it.

I think we’l know the answer to that soon.

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One Response

  1. Bravo for putting the moon findings into perspective. it was getting annoying seeing people only seem to focus on the lunar findings which were exhilarating no doubt, but the martian findings and the cosmic hilarity of the almost was with the viking lander really deserve more attention.

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