NASA Cheers Mars Water Discovery–Clinton Agrees, Limbaugh Not So Much

NASA Cheers Mars Water Discovery–Clinton Agrees, Limbaugh Not So Much

NASA announced another discovery about water on Mars today.  High resolution data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) shows that water “is flowing today” on the surface of Mars.   Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tweeted a congratulatory response while conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh denigrated it as part of a left wing agenda.

The findings today are from data taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) instrument on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).  Although MRO has been circling Mars since 2006, it has made high resolution images of only 3-4 percent of the planet.  In that high resolution data, scientists have discovered downhill streaks called “recurring slope lineae” (RSL).  Speculation has existed for some time that they are related to liquid water. 

Georgia Tech’s Lujendra Ojha, lead author of a paper published today in Nature Geoscience, has spent years studying RSLs.  He said today that for the first time the liquid-water formation hypothesis for RSLs is unambiguous.

NASA advertised today’s announcement as “Mars Mystery Solved,” and Ojha’s comments echo that, but other officials were more cautious.  NASA Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld said it “appears” to confirm that water “is flowing today on the surface of Mars.”  HiRISE principle investigator Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Institute clarified that the water is not exactly “flowing.”  He described it as “thin layers of wet soils, not standing water.”  The water is very salty, much more so than Earth’s oceans, he said.

NASA has made a number of announcements about finding water on Mars.   The topic is important not only for determining whether Mars might have conditions where life may have developed in the past, but also to support humans who may someday travel there in the future.  Grunsfeld, a scientist and former astronaut who champions sending people to Mars, wore his flight suit at the press conference today to underscore that these findings are all part of NASA’s “Journey to Mars.”   The Obama Administration’s policy is to send humans to orbit Mars in the 2030s, although NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden often says that humans will land on the planet in that time frame.  Landing is substantially more difficult, as is ascending back into space to return home.

Political reaction to the news was generally positive.   House Science, Space, and Technology Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) said it “reminds us why we must remain committed to American space leadership and Mars exploration.”   Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, tweeted that it “boosts the likelihood of humans one day being able to live there.” 

Clinton, who earlier expressed her strong support of NASA, said it showed there are no limits to what can be discovered.

One conservative commentator had quite a different view, however.  Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh called it part of a left wing agenda.  Asserting that NASA has been “corrupted by the current regime,” he continued —  “Don’t know how long it’s going to take, but this news … is somehow going to find its way into a technique to advance the leftist agenda.  I don’t know what it is, I would assume it would be something to do with global warming and you can – maybe there was once an advanced civilization.  If they say they found flowing water, next they’re going to find a graveyard.”

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