Scientists have found very strong evidence for flowing water on Mars, NASA announced. Scientists have long speculated that seasonal slopes that appeared on the Martian surface when the weather got warmer were actually flowing water. Now we have proof, CNBC reported. This is the first surface exposed liquid water seen anywhere outside of Earth and means that alien life is possible on Mars.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Mars Has Salty Water Flows On Its Surface, Evidenced by Hydrated Minerals Called Perchlorates
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter found evidence of perchlorates, which are hydrated minerals, forming streaks on Mars’ surface, CNBC reported. The liquid water flows down crater walls in the warmer summer months, The Guardian reported. NASA illustrated this with the GIF above, which shows the streaks of water growing during the warmer months. These streaks are very temperature dependent because they are seeps of water that seep through the shallow surface layer. Until today, NASA had only guessed this was water but now we know for sure.
A related paper, published by the European Planetary Science Congress, explains some of these findings in more detail. By evaluating spectral evidence, scientists confirmed that Mars currently has salty water flows on its surface. For years, experts have wondered about seasonal flows seen on Martian slopes during warmer months. Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology, first discovered these flows in 2011 when he was just 21. These dark lines, called “recurring slope lines,” would appear and grow during warmer months and disappear when temperatures got cooler. The lines seem to follow the sun, growing on slopes that receive the most sunlight. Scientists long theorized these were actual water flows, but they weren’t sure until now.
The evidence for these flows was studied in four locations: the Palikir crater, the Horowitz crater, the Hale crater, and the Coprates Chasma.
2. The Origin of the Water Flow Is Not Yet Known
The exact source of the water flow isn’t yet known. Some possibilities, according to NASA, include melting of ice, condensation out of Mars’ atmosphere, seasonal discharges from salty aquifers, or a combination of these possibilities. Whatever the source is, water is intermittently flowing on the surface of Mars.
3. The Curiosity Rover Can’t Examine the Water Flows
If a watery ocean or aquifer was found, Curiosity likely would not be able to explore it directly. This is because the rover wasn’t completely sterilized before it left Earth, SPACE.com reported. All three drill bits were supposed to be in a sterile box that would be opened by the rover after it landed on Mars. But the box was opened before launch and an extra drill bit was attached to the rover, Daily Mail reported. Because of this, Curiosity’s mission was changed to say that it could interact the surface of Mars as long as no water was found.
In addition, the location of the streaks are very difficult for a rover to reach, NASA officials said during the press conference. We will likely need rovers designed specifically to search the water streaks before they can be investigated personally and perhaps even return samples.
4. This Could Have a Huge Effect on the Possibility of Life on Mars
The water forms around 250 K (-10 degrees Fahrenheit) up to 273 K or 32 degrees. That’s why briny water is the only way that liquid water can exist in the area; the salt content lowers the freezing point of water.
The presence of liquid water, even salty water, significantly increases the chance of finding microbial life on Mars. We now have a great opportunity to be in the right location for looking for life on Mars, NASA said during the press conference. In addition, even salty water gives the possibility for explaining how life on Mars might survive. The question is no longer abstract, but concrete, NASA officials explained.
What type of life might be found? On Earth, extremeophiles can survive in salty, inhospitable conditions such as hot springs or hydrothermal vents. In Antarctica, for example, Deep Lake never freezes because it’s so salty but microbes called haloarchaea thrive there, LiveScience reported. This is just one example of the type of life that might be able to live in Martian waters. However, microbes might want to live closer to fresh water glaciers that NASA still only suspects exists, officials said during the press conference. Water could also be a huge resource for future Mars missions and human colonization on Mars, NASA explained.
5. Scientists and Science Enthusiasts Are Excited About the News
Scientists and science enthusiasts alike are excited about the news. Here are just a few reactions online: