The announcement that water has been found on the Red Planet just happens to have emerged at the same time as the Matt Damon film, with Nasa branding all over it, is released. Spooky, or what?
They’ve offered an answer to David Bowie’s famous question about whether there is life on Mars. Well … yes! Or rather … not exactly! But there is water. Water that could sustain life! Possibly! Nasa has now revealed that there is evidence of stain-marks on Mars’s canyons and crater-walls: water is trickling downhill before drying up in the valleys and plains. The water flows could lead Nasa or another country’s space agency to potential sites where life on Mars could be found.
Exciting stuff. You would have to be a very dull and earthbound sort of person not to be intrigued by this. But as our science editor Ian Sample points out, discovering residual evidence of water on Mars is not exactly new. Pictures beamed back to Earth way back in the 1970s showed evidence of dried-up rivers once submerged beneath ancient lakes and Nasa’s probes are always discovering circumstantial evidence of water on Mars. Ten years ago, its Mars Global Surveyor probe sent back pictures of what may have been water bursting through a gully, and four years ago Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter camera captured images of what appeared to be streams flowing down crater walls.
Certainly,maybe only a cynic would say that Nasa has to keep alive in all our hearts the romance and glory of space travel to stay in tax-funded existence, and so the possibility of water on Mars is an article of faith. And if there is an entertaining movie about a Nasa mission to Mars, which at certain points is almost a feature-length ad for Nasa … well why not time your latest announcement to coincide with its release? To coin a phrase: it isn’t rocket science.
Clarke revealed something truly staggering. Here is what he said: “As you know in the last few weeks, there has been this tremendous excitement among the astronomers over the extraordinarily precise and rhythmic radio impulses coming from a point between Vega and Altair [that is, two of the stars in the ‘summer triangle’ formation, respectively in the Lyra and Aquila constellations] which may yet turn out to have a natural explanation, but its periodicity and characteristics are so extraordinary that no explanation as yet seems very feasible. Sooner or later we expect we will receive proof that other intelligence exists in this universe.”
If Nasa scientists and film-makers and their respective PR teams can find a common interest, why not? Cinema flourishes, and who knows? Maybe there is water on Mars – and much else besides.