How a 21-year-old undergrad helped solve Mars mystery

Discovery could help in quest toward finding extraterrestrial life

NASA on Monday announced that there's flowing water on Mars—and the game-changing scientific discovery wouldn't have been possible without Lujendra Ojha.

Ojha, a current Georgia Tech graduate student, was a University of Arizona undergraduate in 2010 when he made his first important advance.

Working with professor Alfred McEwen and researcher Colin Dundas—who were investigating whether water once flowed on Mars—Ojha developed a computer algorithm that cleaned up imagery of the red planet, and tracked patterns in its surface over time. His project suggested that there was water still flowing on Mars, based on the visible streaks that sometimes appear on certain terrain.

Ojha's discovery immediately created a stir four years ago, although he was quick to caution that his team's conclusion was still preliminary.

"There's going to be years of research put into this to even prove that this is definitely a proof of water," Ojha told CNN—as a 21-year-old undergraduate in 2011. "And from that, we can move on: OK if this is water, what are the chances that life could be in these kinds of surroundings?" he added.

Now, new findings taken from a NASA camera orbiting Mars appear to confirm that there is flowing water on the planet. Ojha and his colleagues will formally present their new research at a conference later this week.

As Ojha explained to CNN four years ago, the NASA finding is incredibly significant because liquid water is a necessary precursor to life on Earth—and potentially essential for extraterrestrial life, too (Landau, CNN, 8/05/11; Roston, Bloomberg, 9/28).

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