On September 28th, NASA confirmed the discovery of liquid water on Mars. New findings from NASA’S Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) provide the strongest evidence. “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.”
Researchers detected signs of hydrated minerals on slopes where mysterious streaks are seen. These streaks seem to move from time to time by darkening and appearing to flow down steep slopes during warm seasons. During the cool seasons, the streaks fade. The downhill flows, called recurring slope lineae (RSL) have been described as possibly related to liquid water. The hydrated salts on the slopes would lower the freezing point of a liquid brine, like salt on the roads melts ice and snow quickly. The discovery of the hydrated salts means water plays an important role in the formation of the streaks.
The discovery of water on Mars is not only a scientific achievement, but also a sign pointing to life existing elsewhere in the universe. The existence of water means there is a possibility of life on Mars, even if that water is very salty and briny.
It is still unclear where this water comes from exactly; many researchers are offering multiple theories. Michael Meyer, the lead scientist for NASA’S Mars Exploration Program said that that will be the topic for the next round of investigations. The water is not the first clue to the potential of life on the Red Planet however. The Mars Curiosity rover has detected methane on the planet’s surface, as well as other chemical signatures that suggest the possibility of past and present life. Whether this discovery improves the odds that life on Mars exists is to be determined, but researcher Mary Beth Wilhelm says the results suggest, “more habitable conditions on the near surface of Mars than previously thought.”
This finding is the most recent of many breakthroughs by NASA’S Mars missions. The MRO has been examining Mars since 2006, and has been able to first identify the seasonal streaks. “It took multiple spacecraft over several years to solve this mystery, and now we know there is liquid water on the surface of this cold, desert planet,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “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 shows how much NASA has evolved over time as an organization and how bright their future looks.
In spite of this, one problem that lies ahead for NASA is that they must decide if it is safe for the rover to approach the streaks for scientific analysis. The rover’s safety is not in question, but the planet’s is. NASA’s planetary protection officer Cassie Conley is trying to figure out if Mars and its water are safe from contamination from Earth-based microorganisms. It is impossible to sterilize any lander completely, and the Curiosity rover has been on Mars for three years, making it very difficult to know if the bacteria that contaminated it on launch day is still alive and dangerous. Until this problem is resolved, the rover cannot go near the RSLs in fear of potentially contaminating the future searches for life. While this is being resolved, the rover can photograph the RSLs in higher quality than the orbiters can, which would answer any questions about the features.
NASA has taken great leaps for mankind in discovering these streaks and their relationship to liquid water. Once they discover where the water comes from, the quest for life on Mars can begin. The possibilities are endless for the Mars missions and NASA can only go up from here.