Friday, March 16, 2007

Mars' water is frozen, like NASA's budget

Using ground-penetrating radar, scientists have found that the south pole of Mars is covered with a layer of almost pure water ice -- enough water to cover the planet to a depth of 36 feet if it melted.

Even better, that's just the south pole. The north pole has another massive ice cap, and there's evidence that there's even more water stored underground all across the planet.

There are still plenty of technical obstacles to setting up any sort of manned station on Mars, notably the extreme cold (average temperature: -81 degrees) and thin, unbreathable atmosphere. But huge amounts of accessible water make it at least thinkable.

Other things, however, make it less thinkable. Like NASA's budget problems. Besides prompting NASA to propose scuttling useful precursor programs like the Lunar Robotics Office, the agency this week admitted it would not have a replacement for its aging space shuttles by the planned 2014 deadline. For now the delay is only a year, to 2015. But with the shuttles scheduled to be retired in 2010, that leaves a five-year gap where manned flights -- and trips to the International Space Station -- will be the domain of Russia or private organizations. Not to mention the up-and-coming space programs of India, China and Japan.

NASA's entire budget is a relatively paltry $16.8 billion. We could eliminate it entirely and still not make a meaningful dent in the budget deficit. Given the agency's usefulness -- politically, economically, militarily and scientifically -- surely we can shield it from the vicissitudes of the budget wars. If there's one thing that deserves strong support, it's scientific inquiry, the exploitation of space and (long term) developing the capacity to colonize or extract resources from other worlds.

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