Our View

Calling Mars home, sweet home

By From page A6 | October 03, 2012

The issue: Rover Curiosity pinpoints ancient stream bed as a potential site for a future base

If there were such an entity as a Martian real estate agent, the cap would be off the smiling agent’s pen and the sales contract slid confidently in front of John Grotzinger for an immediate closing.

Grotzinger is the top scientist on the Mars Science Laboratory, which has operated the lunar rover and explorer Curiosity since it landed in August. A key goal of that mission was to find a site for a possible Mars base, and NASA’s scientists announced last week that they had located a “habitable” site.

THE SITE, an ancient stream bed, offers nearly conclusive proof that there was flowing water on Mars — in the form of rounded pebbles that were smoothed by being washed 20 to 25 miles down a stream of fast-flowing water that might have been waist deep.

Confirmation of water flows was a key goal of the mission. As for finding a site for a possible future base, Curiosity located what in wetter times might have been a gravel bar in a river.

Cynics will say, ‘Trust the government to set up shop in a flood plain,’ but the last water flow may have been “several billions years ago,” according to one scientist. Nevertheless, these areas that once held water are the best places to search for organic compounds, especially carbon-based ones that could indicate the presence of life at one time.

CURIOSITY’S SUCCESS is a welcome antidote to those who have lost faith in the United States’ ability to pull off truly marvelous technical feats.

The rover is in what is called the Gale Crater and its next destination is a mountain in the center of the crater.

The discoveries in the river bed may have already answered questions the scientists hoped to resolve. But as that Martian agent might have explained, real estate is a never-ending quest for location, location, location.

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