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NASA: Swimming on Mars

Images from NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover show rocks with superimposed ancient lake and stream deposits.

REUTERS

Images from NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover show rocks with superimposed ancient lake and stream deposits.

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NASA’s discovery of the remains of a freshwater lake on Mars might not sound like much, but it represents an important step forward in the search for extraterrestrial life. What is almost as extraordinary is that scientists could push on with their research despite budget cuts and the prevailing sense of skepticism in Congress about scientific inquiry with no immediate practical application. The discovery on Mars is a real breakthrough, and lawmakers should see it as such.

The report, published on Dec. 9, is based on data transmitted by the Curiosity rover, which is currently exploring the surface of the red planet. While the dried lake bed is not the first sign that Mars once had water — the planet’s geography has features that could only have been made by water erosion — it is the first evidence of water that could theoretically support life. There is even evidence that this lake contained minerals such as iron and sulfur, both of which are important to the metabolisms of certain types of microorganisms on Earth.

NASA continues to do important work, despite shrinking federal funding. Both the recession and the sequester have taken bites out of the agency’s budget. And although total funding for 2014 is likely to remain unchanged, NASA’s planetary science division, which funds the Mars study, swallowed a $300 million cut in 2013, and many grant-giving operations will be postponed for all of next year. Lawmakers should realize that discoveries such as those of the Curiosity rover team are worthwhile investments. They fire the imagination, and they expand our understanding not just of other worlds but also our own.

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