Scientists celebrate the discovery of flowing water on the Red Planet.
By Mary O’KEEFE
On Monday, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced new findings of the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows – yes, present tense, flows – intermittently on Mars.
“The news that water is flowing on the surface of Mars – not in the distant past, but today – is huge. While we knew that Mars had frozen water in pockets across its surface, the discovery of running water [raises] the question – was there life on Mars and what more can we learn from studying this fascinating planet?” stated Congressman Adam Schiff.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), using the imaging spectrometer, detected hydrated minerals on slopes. Scientists had been watching the dark marks on the steep slopes in this area for a while.
“These were interesting dark [streaks] that appeared in the warmer season, then would fade away and the next year they would come back,” said Dr. Richard Zurek, chief scientist for the MRO mission.
Scientists will be looking for where the water is coming from.
“What [this discovery] really means is to suggest there is a source of water. It might be vapor in the atmosphere or [from] ice,” he said. “This water is very salty.”
The downhill flows, known as recurring slope lineae (RSL), often have been described as possibly relating to liquid water. The new findings of hydrated salts on the slopes point to what that relationship may be to these dark features. The hydrated salts would lower the freezing point of liquid brine, just as salt on roads on Earth causes ice and snow to melt more rapidly. Scientists say it’s likely a shallow subsurface flow, with enough water wicking to the surface to explain the darkening, according to a NASA/JPL statement.
The findings are significant as it furthers NASA/JPL’s mission to “follow the water.”
“When most people talk about water on Mars, they’re usually talking about ancient water or frozen water,” Zurek stated. “Now we know there’s more to the story. This is the first spectral detection that unambiguously supports our liquid water-formation hypotheses for RSL.”
The finding of water on the planet may also mean a possibility of some form of life on Mars.
Scientists have wondered if today’s Mars had solid or vapor water in the atmosphere where “life could get a foothold on the planet.” Even on Earth life has been able to adapt to extremely salty liquid water, he said.
Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta is the lead author of a report on these findings that were published on Monday by Nature Geoscience. Ojha first noticed the dark streaks in 2010 as an undergraduate student at the University of Arizona. MRO’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) observed and has now documented RSL at dozens of sites on Mars, stated NASA/JPL.
Nobody is talking about putting a water fountain on Mars anytime soon however.
“You wouldn’t want to drink it,” Zurek said. “It has perchlorates.”
The data from MRO appears to show hydrated minerals called perchlorates cause the streaks. Perchlorates have been found to keep liquids from freezing even when conditions are at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. On Earth, naturally produced perchlorates are concentrated in deserts. These chemicals have been found on Mars before by both NASA’s Phoenix lander and Curiosity rover. Perchlorates were found in the Martian soil. Some even think the 1970s Viking missions measured these salts. But this study found perchlorates in hydrated form and in different areas than those explored by the landers.
The exploration continues with both rovers and obiters. MRO has been exploring Mars since 2006.
“The ability of MRO to observe for multiple Mars years with a payload able to see the fine detail of these features has enabled findings such as these: first identifying the puzzling seasonal streaks and now making a big step towards explaining what they are,” Zurek stated.
“It’s my hope that this discovery will help to ensure that Congress fully funds the Mars Exploration Program – and that the Administration keeps the Mars 2020 mission on track. It should also embolden us to press forward with other trailblazing missions, like Europa, that will further expand mankind’s knowledge of the cosmos and our place in it,” Schiff stated.
The next mission planned for Mars is in 2020. A rover will be designed to investigate the habitability of Mars, assessing natural resources and hazards for a future manned landing. NASA has targeted a human mission to Mars in the 2030s. This discovery may not push that date up but it does give scientists more to think about as the human mission is planned.
“There are a lot of problems we have to solve before [a human mission],” Zurek said.
In addition to the logistics of traveling to Mars and safely returning, there is a concern of what human exploration would mean for the planet.
“When humans go to a place they bring life with them,” Zurek said in an earlier interview with CVW.
Scientists do not know for certain that there is no life on Mars and do not want to contaminate the Martian surface. Scientists also have to determine what Mars can provide for future explorers. If, for example, they put a nuclear power plant on Mars to support a human base, how would they get the equipment to build the plant?
They will also look at the effects of gravity, or lack of gravity, on a person. Those studies have been going on with the help of the International Space Station.
And although humans have landed, explored and returned from the Moon, the Apollo missions that got them there and back are different than a Martian trip.
“The difference with the Apollo program is a [Martian trip] will be a longer term stay,” Zurek said.
There will be obstacles, but there were with the moon landing as well.
At present the discovery of liquid water flowing on Mars is another step in the concentrated exploration of the Red Planet.
“Our quest on Mars has been to ‘follow the water’ in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we’ve long suspected,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “This is a significant development as it appears to confirm that water – albeit briny – is flowing today on the surface of Mars.”