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Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands on the moon, July 20, 1969.

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands on the moon, July 20, 1969.

01 August 2008

U.S. Space Agency Confirms Water on Mars, August 1, 2008

(Spacefarers “boldly go where no one has gone before,” scientist says)

By Cheryl Pellerin
Staff Writer

Washington -- As NASA celebrates 50 years of space exploration, laboratory tests by the agency’s Phoenix lander, whose survey of the Martian surface began May 25, have found chemical proof of water on the Red Planet.

Scientists have seen evidence for water ice on the planet in observations by NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter and in disappearing chunks that the Phoenix cameras documented in June, but this is the first time Martian water has been “touched and tasted” by sophisticated instruments, said William Boynton of the University of Arizona, lead scientist for Phoenix’s thermal and evolved-gas analyzer, during a July 31 briefing.

On July 30, the day before NASA confirmed the presence of water on Mars, British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking addressed the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology in a recorded message.

“From Earth we know that where there is water, however hot or cold a temperature, there is life,” he told the legislators, who had convened the hearing to commemorate NASA’s 50th anniversary. “Finding water on Mars would mean that a future Mars colony could use it as a source of oxygen. It is a first step to spreading the human race out to space, which I’m arguing has to be our long-term aim.”

NASA AT 50

NASA came into being October 1, 1958, to do that and more. The National Aeronautics and Space Act, signed the previous July, mandated the new agency develop and operate vehicles capable of carrying equipment and people through space, and cooperate with other nations in that enterprise.

“Just 50 years ago, we were learning, for the first time in all human history,” John Glenn, former astronaut and Democratic senator from Ohio, said during the hearing, “how to travel above the Earth’s atmosphere at amazing speeds and remain there for increasing amounts of time. It has been a wonderful half century.”

Glenn, as an astronaut in NASA's Mercury program, was the first American to orbit Earth in 1962. He became the oldest person to fly in space in 1998, when at age 77 he flew aboard space shuttle Discovery.

From Mercury, the first U.S. program for human space flight; through Gemini; Apollo and the moon landing; Skylab (showing in 1973 that people could live and work in space); the rendezvous and docking of Apollo-Soyuz, the first international human space flight mission; to the space shuttle and the International Space Station; NASA’s manned and robotic programs have added to the world’s knowledge of earth and space science.

UNDERSTANDING EARTH AND SPACE

Moon rocks from the Apollo program provided evidence that the moon, and by extension the rest of the solar system, formed more than 4.5 billion years ago, Maria Zuber, head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the House committee members.

Advances in understanding of Mars over the past decade can be counted among NASA’s greatest successes, Zuber said. “The discovery of vast reservoirs of polar surface ice and subsurface ice has removed a major impediment to future human exploration of this most Earth-like of terrestrial planets.”

NASA missions have revealed the nature of the solar system’s building blocks -- asteroids, comets and Kuiper Belt objects. Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyager 1 and 2, Galileo and, most recently, the Cassini-Huygens mission have shown the giant planets’ massive cloud systems, complex dynamics and the prevalence of ring systems whose study has helped scientists model the solar system’s formation.

Two years after the first U.S. satellite Explorer 1 launched in 1958, NASA launched the world’s first weather satellite, TIROS-1. Since then, NASA, or the science community with NASA support, has developed innovative approaches used in remote satellite observation for scientific purposes.

Other NASA spacecraft have mapped ocean circulation patterns, biological ocean productivity, wind patterns over the oceans and their relationship to wave distribution and height, and the global distribution of land vegetation species and their state of health and change over time.

“The respected publication Science News indicates that 5 percent to 10 percent of all scientific discoveries worldwide over the past decade can be traced to NASA,” Zuber said.

Nearly 40 years after the first humans walked on the moon, Zuber said, nearly every spacefaring nation is executing or planning missions to the moon. Many of the same nations are planning missions to Mars.

“Can the rest of the solar system be far behind?” she said.

“The human race has existed as a separate species for about 2 million years,” Hawking said. “Civilization began about 10,000 years ago and the rate of development has been steadily increasing. We have now reached the stage where we can boldly go where no one has gone before.”

See also "Perfect Landing Marks Start of New Mission on Mars."

More information about NASA’s 50th anniversary and the Phoenix Mars lander is available on the agency’s Web site.

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