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NASA Finds Evidence of Flowing Water on Mars!

Posted by cfeehan on September 30, 2015


Photograph: Mars Reconnaissance orbiter/University of Arizona/JPL/NASA

In case you hadn’t yet heard, new findings from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) present the strongest evidence to date that liquid water flows on Mars. This is huge news in the field of planetary exploration and research! You might be thinking “this isn’t new, we’ve been hearing speculation of this for years”, but what you’ve likely heard about is the existence of icebergs, remnants of ancient lakes, and so on. But flowing liquid water, which is essential to sustaining life, is a whole other story.


Photograph: Mars Reconnaissance orbiter/University of Arizona/JPL/NASA

What did they find?

The images that NASA’s MRO has captured are very high-resolution compared to those taken in the past. So high-res, in fact, that you can actually see dark streaks up to a few hundred metres in length running down the sides of cliffs and craters. These streaks, known as recurring slope lineae (RSL), are thought to be formed when flowing water runs down the side of these cliffs.

Using an imaging spectrometer on MRO, researchers identified signatures of hydrated minerals on the steep slopes where these streaks are seen. Rich Zurek, Chief Scientist at the NASA Mars Program Office says, “The salts detected on Mars are magnesium or sodium perchlorate. These are not typical salts on the Earth, but they have the attribute that they can keep water liquid to much colder temperatures which occur on Mars.” On Earth, naturally produced perchlorates are found in deserts, and some types can even be used as rocket propellant!

According to findings of MRO, the streaks actually darken and appear to flow down these steep slopes during warm seasons (when the temperature rises above -23 degrees Celsius) and then fade in colder seasons.

"We found the hydrated salts only when the seasonal features were widest, which suggests that either the dark streaks themselves or a process that forms them is the source of the hydration. In either case, the detection of hydrated salts on these slopes means that water plays a vital role in the formation of these streaks," said Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is the lead author of a report on these findings. He goes on to say, “this is the first spectral detection that unambiguously supports our liquid water-formation hypotheses for RSL.” Awesome.


Photograph: Mars Reconnaissance orbiter/University of Arizona/JPL/NASA

Possible issues

There is currently a rover on Mars called Curiosity. So you’d think “perfect, we have a rover on Mars and there’s been a cool new discovery there, let’s send it over to do some research”, but it isn’t that simple. Unfortunately, the rover is not sterile enough to go near Mars’ water. If it did, it would risk contaminating the wet areas with bugs (microbes, spores, and dust) from earth that may still be alive on its surface.

Disallowing Curiosity to explore the wet streaks on Mars could hinder scientists’ hopes of looking for life on Mars, though, and some scientists are speaking out against this restriction. NASA’s Jim Green argues that the extreme radiation environment on Mars, in particular the UV light, likely killed any bugs Curiosity carried into space, which would make it clean enough to move into the sites.

On the other hand, a recent report from the US National Academy of Sciences and the European Science Foundation suggests that UV light might not get rid of the bugs, but could actually make matters worse. It states, “Although the flux of ultraviolet radiation within the Martian atmosphere would be deleterious to most airborne microbes and spores, dust could attenuate this radiation and enhance microbial viability.” There will be heavy discussion on this topic for the next few months in order to figure out what should be done.


Photograph: Mars Reconnaissance orbiter/University of Arizona/JPL/NASA

What’s Next?

Aliens. So many aliens. Okay, so I made that up, but the likelihood of some form of life existing on Mars is much more plausible now than it was before! Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program, says, "It seems that the more we study Mars, the more we learn how life could be supported and where there are resources to support life in the future."

This idea is supported even further by the fact that NASA has only searched 3% of Mars at resolutions high enough to see these detailed features. That leaves the other 97% of the planet to explore! NASA has even said that they are planning to send humans to Mars in the 2030s, which will be a giant step to discovering, first-hand, what else is out there.


Photograph: Mars Reconnaissance orbiter/University of Arizona/JPL/NASA

Reddit AMA questions:

For those of you who are familiar with Reddit (I know there are a few…), you may have seen NASA’s “Ask Me Anything” forum that went up on Monday. If you don’t know what that is, it’s a place where Reddit users could go online and asks questions to the actual scientists at NASA, and they’d answer their questions! The internet is so cool. I’ve included some of the interesting questions and answers below.

Q: Could there be Martian life in the water since it's only there at certain times of the year? What might happen to the life when the water disappears?

NASA: It's possible. We know of forms of life that hibernate during dry seasons on Earth.

Q: What quantity of water are we talking about? What volume?

NASA: We think this is a very small amount of water -- maybe just enough to wet the top layer of the surface of Mars. The streaks are ~4-5 meters wide and ~200-300 meters long.

Q: In the articles I've read so far, the water is referred to as "briny" and that it's more fluid than it is water. What does that mean? Would this be something theoretically possible to drink or grow things with? Or would this be the kind of thing that would need purification before it could be used?

NASA: The salts in the water appear to be perchlorates, so I wouldn't want to drink the water. To be a future resource for humans, you would want to remove the salts.

They’re already discussing using the water on Mars as a possible resource for humans! And the possibility of hibernating organisms on Mars! This is definitely a story you’ll want to follow up with; it’s too cool to miss.

Follow NASA on Twitter for updates on this development and other cool space-related discoveries.


Sources: http://www.theguardian.com/science/gallery/2015/sep/28/water-on-the-red-planet-nasa-reveals-major-discovery-in-pictures



Caitlin Feehan, Blogger & Editor

Converse have been my footwear of choice for the past 9 years, I’m convinced that all doors and sidewalks are conspiring against me, and I enjoy sticking my head out of the passenger window on long car rides.