Water on Mars by Matthew Fairchild

Water on Mars

Matthew Fairchild

On August 25, 2012, Voyager 1 left the solar system. It was an unassuming occasion, marked only by an increase in pressure around the spacecraft. It didn’t hit a wall, burn up, or run over an angel. Instead it simply started noticing that the sloughed off plasma and dust floating around it started coming from somewhere other than our sun.

Our star, along with every other star, in its violent, explosive state, ejects particles outward in all directions. Along with forming the auroras, these particles keep similar particles from outside our sun at bay. The solar wind pushes back on them and ensures that our planet basks solely in the glow of our sun. However, this wind, like all winds, dies out eventually. After gradually slowing down, at 18 billion kilometers away from the sun, it stops entirely. This barrier is known as the heliopause and is the last point at which our solar system has an appreciable effect on the galaxy. Beyond that, the higher density interstellar medium holds us in place. Some particles from our sun can seep out, but most of them cannot withstand the pressure of the matter from every dead star pushing back.

For all of history, the only things capable of squeezing through the heliopause to the interstellar medium were a few highly energetic ions. Now, though, we have created something big and powerful enough to not be affected by the pressure differential. To Voyager 1, the heliopause is not a wall, and the interstellar medium is simply an increase in the needle on a gauge. We are now capable of pushing out and pushing back harder and further than nature. We are moving outward into the expanse from which there is no turning back.


When I was a kid my brother and I would go on hikes in the gully behind our house. Nearly all of the land in Corona del Mar, California, was developed except for this quarter-mile wide, quarter-mile deep ravine that was too rugged and steep to build houses on. Across the gully from our house was the 8th hole of the Pelican Hill Golf Course. Throughout the day we would hear the ping of driver striking ball, sometimes followed with “fore” or angry yelling. This made sense to us, since sometimes we would find golf balls embedded into the earth on our side of the gully.

Aside from one trail along the bottom, the gully remained wild and overgrown. Oaks and sycamores lined the bottom near the stream while fields of wild mustard covered the hills leading up to the developments. Bushes of sage and clumps of beavertail cactus dotted the hills as well, breaking up the sea of yellow and grey. Our gully had always been wild. It was named Buck Gully after the naked hippies who went down to the creek at the bottom of it to get high in the 70s.

One morning, after watching the golfers across the way all our lives, we decided to hike over to the fairway. There was no trail across the gully, but we enjoyed the challenge of bushwhacking our way through the undergrowth and suited up. We put on sunscreen and long clothing like our mom told us, grabbed our SEAL packs (which were mostly comprised of all the survival manuals, first aid supplies, and pocket knives we owned stuffed in a Camelback), and started down the gully.


From the moment of creation, water and the heavens have been linked. “Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. So the evening and the morning were the second day.” Genesis 1:8-9 (NKJV). Above the rotating plate of stars lay a vast ocean just beyond our view. As humanity learned more about the night sky, revisions were made to the theory, adding additional spheres for each of the planets or asserting that the circular earth was what rotated, but in each iteration the last sphere was the stars, with the waters and heaven unseen beyond it. Even after the model of the spheres was disproven during the renaissance, the idea of the waters and heaven beyond our view remains.

In the 1888 Flammarion engraving, a man pokes his head out of the firmament at the point where it meets the land at the end of the earth. He looks past the plane to see the majesty, machinery, and waters behind the celestial sphere. We also try to poke our heads through the firmament to look at what lies beyond, and most importantly, find the thing that has been promised to us since the beginning of time: water among the stars.


Along the trail at the bottom of the gully there was a small cliff face where my brother always stopped. In the side of the sandstone wall next to the trail ran thin layers of quartz. This was one of our most prized possessions. We treated it like gold and often would go down to the gully to mine more out of the mountain. Much of our time outside as kids was spent digging holes or picking up rocks. When we were young, our mother pulled up a rose bed in our yard so that my brother could have a place to dig holes without having to go somewhere else. After that, we spent many of our weekends together digging holes, filling them in, and then digging them again. He eventually became a geologist, like we all knew he would.

On this occasion, he noticed a rather large vein that we had yet to fully tap. I looked on intently as he pulled out his old hammer, dirty and rusty in places, and used the tongs to rip away the loose sandstone around the vein. A few pieces of rock fell to the ground, exposing the flat plate of quartz going into the wall. He pulled at the vein until he cracked off a few small pieces, putting them into a bag with some more quartz from a previous time down at the mine. With that, we went on down the trail and crossed the river to the other side.


While water beyond our Earth has eluded scientists for millennia, ice is relatively easy to find out in space. The frigid temperatures lend themselves to finding all elements and compounds in their solid state. From comets to moons to asteroids to the ice caps of Mars, our solar system is abundant with solid water. Possibly the most interesting of these sources, though, is comets. Not only do they contain ice, but they also have many of the basic organic building blocks for life. Missions to comets have detected methanol, ethanol, ethane, and even the amino acid glycine. These, combined with other organic compounds, form DNA and RNA, which lead to all known life. The chemical components and water necessary for life are trapped in these dirty iceballs aimlessly hurtling around the sun. All that they need is to be heated up, and a violent impact with a planet is a very effective way to do that. One of the leading theories for how life started on Earth is that an asteroid with the correct amino acids crashed into the Earth, combining the compounds into DNA and RNA, and harboring them in a nursery of liquid water. If we are to find life elsewhere in the universe, there needs to be liquid water. Unfortunately, there are not many places in our solar system outside of Earth where that is possible.


The path we chose up to the 8th fairway went along a ravine up the other side of the gully. Most of the foliage in the gully was chaparral, with wild mustard covering the tops of the hills, but along the stream at the bottom and in small ravines like this, there were trees. Coastal live oaks lined the bottom of the ravine where the water would be channeled toward. We passed under these trees in relative silence. There was not much that we felt we needed to say to each other. We were both focused on making the journey to the other side. Occasionally my brother or I would point out adjustments in our path that needed to be made or that there was a branch that the other should watch out for, but mostly the only sound was the sea breeze rustling through the trees.


Before the lack of liquid water in space was common knowledge, people assumed that all of the other planets were just as habitable as our own. Famously, scientists in the 1800s proposed that rivers (translated into English as canals) stretched across Mars. Some even went as far as to say that the canals were created for irrigation by intelligent life that we had yet to make contact with. While this idea was finally disproved in 1964 when Mariner 4 flew by Mars, sending back photographs of a barren and desolate planet, opposition to the theory began soon after it was formed. By the beginning of the 20th century, astronomers began to critique it by pointing out how the canals could be an optical illusion and the temperature and air pressure would be too low for liquid water to form rivers and seas.

But these arguments did not convince everybody, and books on Martian biology were published right up until the Mariner flyby. In the end, only the foolish and the ignorant hoped that the Mariner mission would show rivers and seas crossing the surface. But still some hoped, not because it was rational, but because they wanted it to be true. The idea that the other planet in our solar system most likely to harbor life is just a lifeless, red desert is nowhere near as exciting as it being a verdant garden world, teeming with intelligent species. They wanted to find and meet the little green men, just like so many others who look up at the stars.


When we reached the top of the other side of the gully, we came out near the mansions next to the golf course. They had finished building them only a few years before, drawing the property lines right up to the edge of the gully. Kobe Bryant and Dean Koontz lived there. Their opulent residences looked dazzling from across the gully and up close were even larger than expected. The lives of the people who could live in those houses seemed to be so much better than ours. They lived in the wealth that we had to trek across uninhabited wilderness to reach. I wished that I lived in Dean Koontz’s house. His expansive prairie-style mansion sat right on the edge of the gully. The earth tones of the exterior blended so well with the surrounding landscape, unlike the rest of the gaudy buildings. To be able to go back to that house after a day exploring seemed amazing.


Not everyone is as hopeful about meeting intelligent alien life as those who hoped for the Martian canals, however. Physicist Stephen Hawking has stated for years that he believes any intelligent alien life that would arrive at Earth would most likely destroy us. Citing Western colonization as an example, he says that advanced alien civilizations would have no regard for less advanced ones like ours, and they would colonize our planet and exploit it for its resources. This fear of our destruction is obviously not enough to stop him from looking for aliens, though, since in 2015 he announced the Breakthrough Listen initiative, which will scan radio signals from other stars for signs of intelligent life, and the Breakthrough Message initiative, which will send out signals of our own in an attempt to hail any alien species.

Despite his misgivings, Hawking’s interest in finding intelligent life shows how the point that they may be hostile is moot. Alien species may be hostile or uncaring, but they may also have a space-UN and space-treaties that protect less advanced civilizations, or they even might have a Star Trek-style non-intervention treaty.  In either case they are out there and we are down here, and we cannot do anything to move away if they arrive.

It also shows a much more optimistic side to our nature as humans. Even though finding an advanced alien civilization might lead to our destruction, we have to do it. Science has led us to the beginning of interstellar space, and we cannot stop now out of fear. We explore and find new places, people, and things. Even if we think that we should stop, we cannot help ourselves. We have to push further out into the unknown, and if we are to find any alien life, the first step is to find liquid water.


When we finally reached the edge of the fairway, my brother put his hand on my shoulder. He looked out to see if anyone was playing. There did not appear to be anybody, but we wanted to make sure. I had no idea what the course security would do if they found us, but it undoubtedly would be something bad. He peered over to the tee box to make sure that no one was about to tee off. Not seeing anyone, he said that it was safe to go, and we ran out onto the grass.

We ran over to the bunkers and back to the edge of the fairway and back again. For the first time on our trek, we could move freely without having to push away braches or tall grass. The manicured lawn let us go however fast we wanted and do whatever we wanted. Standing in the middle of the fairway, we looked back across the gully to see our house. It looked much smaller now, though we could recognize it from all of the trees in the backyard. The sun was now overhead and standing out in it became hot. With not much to see beyond grass and our own house, we walked a ways down the fairway and went back into the gully.


On September 28, 2015, NASA announced that they had discovered liquid water on the surface of Mars. Far from the canals and seas theorized earlier, what they discovered was a highly concentrated salt solution that flows down the edges of craters beneath the surface in the summer months. It isn’t much, isn’t pure, and doesn’t last for long before freezing again, but it is confirmed liquid water, which is more than can be said of anywhere else. In the future, NASA will undoubtedly send rovers or astronauts to these regions to look for life after carefully ensuring that they will not contaminate the flows.

While these Martian flows present the best opportunity that we know of to find life outside of Earth, they are not the only ones. Even though the required conditions for life, and especially complex intelligent life, are extremely rare, in an infinitely large universe with an infinitely high amount of worlds, life is bound to exist on more than one. All we need to do is travel to the right system with the right world, exiting our heliopause and entering theirs.


That evening after we had come back home and showered, we sat in the backyard picking blackberries and talking about our expedition. The red and orange light reflected off the clouds above us and filled the gully with impressionistic hues, merging the swaying underbrush together in the breeze. The last of the golfers had finished for the day and it was quiet again. We had picked up some prime throwing sticks on the way back, and after eating our fill of berries, we decided to throw them back into the gully. I threw mine as hard as I could and down into the iceplant below. He tossed his off the ledge, landing it a few yards further than mine. Later that evening, a coyote yipped somewhere in the distance.


© Matthew Fairchild


Matthew Fairchild lives in Southern California and is currently attending the MFA program in creative writing at Chapman University. He is the Managing Director of Anastamos, an interdisciplinary graduate student journal.