Why Water On Mars Is The Most Important Thing In The News Right Now

by Lani Seelinger

Last week, scientists analyzing the data from NASA's Curiosity rover, currently making its way across the surface of Mars, discovered liquid water exists on Mars.

This is a huge deal, guys. This is big news. More important than Kim Kardashian's latest Instagram and Starbucks' s'mores-inspired drinks.

Our parents and grandparents might've had the space race, but we have the search for alien life – and we're just getting started.

First: Water isn't life; it isn't little green men walking around speaking Klingon. And in this specific case, scientists still believe the conditions on Mars are too hostile even for the hardiest forms of life. But still -- water on Mars is a big freakin' deal.

We know about different tenacious life forms from here on Earth, where certain types of bacteria can survive in highly salty conditions (like what they've found on Mars) or even thrive on eating nuclear waste.

However, even these sorts of microorganisms would likely be unable to live on Mars because of the amount of radiation the planet receives from the sun (our atmosphere blocks us from that) and because it's so cold and dry there.

We didn't expect to find water, though, and now we have. Already, Curiosity has broadened our horizons, and there are billions more places to look.

Even finding evidence of long-extinct life on Mars would be one of the biggest discoveries of our generation, a possibility that's still wide open.

Follow the water.

Water is the first thing an astrobiologist (someone whose job it is to look for alien life) looks for.

As far as we can tell, liquid water is the most essential element for life to exist, and it's relatively hard to find in the universe.

While they haven't completely ruled out the possibility for life using another element in place of water, the scenario seems unlikely.

So for now, the idea is to “follow the water.” If there's already water on Mars, we don't have to go far. But even within our solar system, we have other options for future explorations.

Many think we have the greatest chance at finding extraterrestrial life around our star and on a moon -- not on another planet.

A longtime favorite of astrobiologists everywhere has been Jupiter's icy moon Europa. While it's way too far away from the sun for liquid water to exist on its surface, it has an entire ocean underneath its surface layer of ice.

It's heated by friction in the moon's core by Jupiter's gravitational pull – the same phenomenon through which the Moon causes ocean tides here on Earth.

The general agreement is life formed in warm, mineral-rich water here on Earth, and Europa's tidally-heated ocean might offer just that. We've known this for decades, and the prospect is tantalizing.

Europa isn't alone, however. Saturn's moon Enceladus was recently discovered to have a similar ocean under its icy surface, which moves it straight to the top tier of places to look.

Also orbiting Saturn is Titan, the only other body in our solar system with liquid at its surface in the form of rain, rivers, lakes and streams.

It's not water filling Titan's lakes, however; it's cold enough for methane, which we know as a gas, to take the form of liquid on the moon's surface.

We can't yet conceive of life using liquid methane instead of water, but the fact we can't conceive of it doesn't prove it doesn't exist.

Millennials could be the first to find alternative life forms.

A mission to one of these moons, especially Europa, might not even be that far off – NASA has already approved the budget to start planning one that would launch in the 2020s.

It may seem like a long timeline now, but it's within our lifetime. We'll still be working members of society in the 2020s or 2030s, when the Europa lander would finally touch down and start collecting data to prove whether or not we're alone in the universe.

In all likelihood, the scientists who get the first look at these data will be Millennials.

While astrobiology has existed for a while, now is when it's really starting to heat up.

Our technology has progressed by leaps and bounds, and we can see farther and more precisely into the darkness surrounding us than ever before.

The Hubble Space Telescope, for example, at 25 years old, is still making discovery after discovery, expanding our knowledge – most recently about the mysterious (and aptly named) dark matter, but often in the field of astrobiology as well.

Curiosity has been sending back selfies from Mars (yep, seriously; it's sending selfies), making it look like a normal desert. Already, our solar system feels even smaller.

Now there's really no limit to what we still have to learn and discover – and therefore, no limit to what we can learn and discover.

And now, as opposed to generations of our ancestors, we actually have the technology and the know-how to do it.

As the great astronomer Carl Sagan once said, "We are all made of star stuff." And as Neil DeGrasse Tyson extended the idea, adding:

We are not simply in the universe, we are part of it. We are born from it. One might even say we have been empowered by the universe to figure itself out — and we have only just begun.

So yeah, Curiosity may have just found some water on some planet – but now we know more, and we'll keep learning more. To quote Tyson, we just need to keep looking up.

Citations: Nasas Curiosity rover finds water below surface of Mars (The Guardian ), Scientists discover hazardous waste eating bacteria (The University of Manchester), Water The Molecule of Life (Astrobiology Magazine), NASA Thinks Life May Lurk Beneath Europas Surface (Forbes), The First Life on Earth (The Smithsonian Institution ), Warm Oceans on Saturns Moon Enceladus Could Harbor Life (Discover), Titans Hazy History and the Potential for Life (Discovery News), Could there be life in Titans methane sea (Cosmos Magazine), Mission to Europa Nasa announces funding to send probe to Jupiters ice moon (The Independent ), Dark matter not as dark as first thought Scientists find it interacts with forces other than just gravity (The Independent )