Water on Mars! Will we land people there this lifetime?

These dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars are inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water. Recently, planetary scientists detected hydrated salts on these slopes at Hale crater, corroborating their original hypothesis that the streaks are indeed formed by liquid water. The blue color seen upslope of the dark streaks are thought not to be related to their formation, but instead are from the presence of the mineral pyroxene. The image is produced by draping an orthorectified (Infrared-Red-Blue/Green(IRB)) false color image (ESP_030570_1440) on a Digital Terrain Model (DTM) of the same site produced by High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (University of Arizona). Vertical exaggeration is 1.5. Credits: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

It’s official – there could potentially be life on Mars after NASA has announced that they have the strongest evidence yet of flowing water on the nearby planet. And it is now believed that this discovery could speed up the race to land people there. For Baby Boomers who saw Neil Armstrong step onto the moon in 1969, today could herald the second major intra-galactic landing in a lifetime. Scientists across the world are bubbling with excitement as the data was rolled out by some of the pre-eminent scientists in the world.

To announce the excitement, NASA called a worldwide gathering of scientists overnight, and the results, which were widely predicted did not disappoint.

“New findings from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) provide the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows intermittently on present-day Mars,” NASA spokespersons announced.

“Using an imaging spectrometer on the Mars Rover, researchers detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes where mysterious streaks are seen on the Red Planet. These darkish streaks appear to ebb and flow over time. They darken and appear to flow down steep slopes during warm seasons, and then fade in cooler seasons. They appear in several locations on Mars when temperatures are above minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 Celsius), and disappear at colder times.”

“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.”

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“These downhill flows, known as recurring slope lineae (RSL), often have been described as possibly related 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 a liquid brine, just as salt on roads here 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.

“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 (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, lead author of a report on these findings published Sept. 28 by Nature Geoscience.

MRO, the Mars Rover, has been examining Mars since 2006 with its six science instruments.

“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,” said Rich Zurek, MRO project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

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For Ojha, the new findings are more proof that the mysterious lines he first saw darkening Martian slopes five years ago are, indeed, present-day water.

“When most people talk about water on Mars, they’re usually talking about ancient water or frozen water,” he said. “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 discovery is the latest of many breakthroughs by NASA’s Mars missions.

“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.”

Australian scientists have weighed in on the discovery with excitement.

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“Of all the worlds we’ve explored, water flows only on the surface of one – ours. Which is why the discovery that water is now likely to be regularly flowing across Mars is so stunning.

Dark streaks in the Martian soil appear to contain hydrated (ie water bearing) salts as seen by NASA’s satellite, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. These strongly suggest that these seasonal features are linked to salt water after all.

NASA is guided in its science by ‘following the water’ as where there’s liquid water there’s life. The brine on Mars might not directly support life but it suggests that the arid world isn’t as dry as once thought.”

“We can’t tell if there’s life there yet but these dark streaks can tell us where to search in future,” said Dr Alan Duffy is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Astrophysics & Supercomputing at Swinburne University of Technology.  

“I can simply say that the potential presence of liquid water on the surface of Mars is incredibly exciting because water is essential for life as we know it to exist.  More work is needed to understand how exactly these seasonal salty water streams are formed on Mars, but the new evidence for water flow is certainly an exciting step forward in understanding water activity on Mar,” said Dr Amanda Bauer is a Research Astronomer and Outreach Officer at the Australian Astronomical Observatory.

“People have pondered for a long time about our ethical obligations if life was found on Mars, and indeed the necessity of avoiding contamination from Earth is written into the Outer Space Treaty.  The discovery of these salty, seasonal flows on a planet we thought of as nearly dead dramatically increases the chances that it might support life. But to get close enough to the flows to sample them, we also risk introducing terrestrial micro-organisms. We know bacteria from Earth have made it into orbit on spacecraft. This discovery means that future Martian surface missions are going to have to adhere to an even higher standard than is already the case,” said Dr Alice Gorman is a lecturer in the Department of Archaeology, specialising in space archaeology, at Flinders University. 

 That leaves us to contemplate whether you think we will indeed find evidence of “Martians” in our lifetime.  What do you think?