NASA Confirms Evidence of Water on Mars

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photo credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

 

By: Haylee Fisher (@haylee_fisher)

 

Liquid water flows on Mars during the summer months, NASA scientists said in a press conference Monday.

 

Because of this, they say it increases the chances of being home to some sort of life.

 

The water runs down craters and valleys called recurring slope lineae (RSL), leaving long dark streaks on the terrain. This water is not the kind found on Earth, though, and is akin to a precipitated salt that dribbles down in a trickle. The water is darker and more prominent in the warmer months and fades during the cooler seasons.

 

“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.”

 

The evidence was first discovered by Lujendra Ojha, now a doctoral candidate at the Georgia Institute of Technology, back in 2011. Since then, he and his colleagues have studied the RSL streaks and published their conclusive findings in a new Nature Geoscience paper published Monday as well.

 

The investigation shows chemical signatures in the water consist of hydrated minerals called perchlorates that are most consistent with a mixture of magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate, and sodium perchlorate. These allow the water to remain liquid at lower temperatures but also help keep it from boiling off in the thin atmosphere of Mars.

 

However, this is not the first time these perchlorates have been seen on Mars, just the first time they’ve been seen from orbit. Some of the earliest missions, including those of the 1970s, showed a surface of dried rivers and plains. Earlier this year, NASA unveiled evidential findings of an ocean covering half the planet’s northern hemisphere in the past.

 

Nor is this the first potential clue Mars could have once – or could still – hold life. Most notably, the Curiosity Rover has detected methane and other chemical signatures suggesting the possibility of life.

 

The team notes they don’t know where the water is coming from, but that the discovery is just the first step.

 

“The water may be such a dense brine that life can’t flourish, and the radiation environment of Mars’ surface is detrimental,” said Alfred McEwen, planetary Geology professor at the University of Arizona and a co-author of the Ojha’s paper. “However, finding the water is step one, and we need future investigations to look for life at these locations.”

 

From here, the scientists aim to find out where the water is coming from. It also allows them to narrow down the best places to direct the next rover, due in 2020, to collect samples.

 

But McEwen is confident for the future and the habitability of Mars.

 

“It’s very likely, I think, that there’s life somewhere in the crust of Mars, microbes,” he said.

 

Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA, echoed McEwen’s thoughts at the press conference. He said the discovery puts NASA in a perfect position to look for that life.

 

“We haven’t been able to answer the question, ‘Does life exist beyond Earth?’” Green said. “But following the water is a critical element of that. We now have, I think, a great opportunity to be in the right locations on Mars to thoroughly investigate that.”

 

According to a NASA press release, there are eight co-authors of the Nature Geoscience paper, including Mary Beth Wilhelm at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, and Georgia Tech; CRISM Principal Investigator Scott Murchie of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland; and HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona. Others are at Georgia Tech, the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and Laboratoire de Planétologie et Géodynamique in Nantes, France.

 

More information about NASA’s journey to Mars is available at https://www.nasa.gov/topics/journeytomars.


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