THE chance of finding life on Mars has just been given a boost with NASA announcing the discovery of flowing water on the red planet.
Data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter — a multipurpose spacecraft designed to conduct exploration from orbit — has provided the strongest evidence ever seen that liquid water flows intermittently on present-day Mars.
Director of planetary science at NASA headquarters Jim Green said the space agency was revolutionising our understanding of the red planet.
“Our rover’s finding a lot more humidity in the air than we ever imagined. As we inject the soils, they’re moist, they’re hydrated, full of water,” he said at a press conference.
“These discoveries are very important, but only part of the hydrological cycle on Mars that we are just now beginning to understand.
“What we are going to announce today is Mars is not the dry, arid planet that we thought of in the past.
“Today, we are going to announce that under certain circumstances, liquid water has been found on Mars.”
HOW NASA MADE THE DISCOVERY
For years, NASA has long hypothesised the mysterious streaks seen on Mars were from water, but they did not have any proof, until now.
Using an imager on the orbiter to examine light waves returned from the seasonal dark streaks on the surface of Mars, researchers have been able to confirm the theory.
Detailed investigation into the downhill flows — known as recurring slope lineae (RSL) — revealed the dark streaks absorbed light at specific wavelengths connected with chemicals known to pull water from Mars’ atmosphere.
Mary Beth Wilhelm of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field said of all the chemicals discovered at the RSL sites, one known as “perchlorate” was of particular interest.
“Perchlorate salts have the special capability pertaining to the absorption or atmospheric water through a process called deliquescence,” she said.
“Basically, if the humidity on the Martian atmosphere is high enough, perchlorate salts absorb water until the salt dissolves and forms a liquid solution.”
Georgia Tech doctoral student Lujendra Ojha — who first discovered the streaks in 2011 — said he believed leftover salt deposits from these briny flows were responsible for the mysterious streaks.
“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,” he said.
“In either case, the detection of hydrated salts on these slopes means that water plays a vital role in the formation of these streaks.”
IS THIS EVIDENCE OF LIFE ON MARS?
NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, John Grunsfeld, said the existence of briny liquid water definitely enhances the possibility of finding life on Mars.
“The existence of liquid water, even if it’s super salty briny water, gives the possibility that if there’s life on Mars, it will give us a means to describe how life survived,” he said.
“We are now at a point, technologically, with over 50 years of successful space flight, that we have the capability to go there, ask this question ‘is there life on Mars?’ and answer it.
“This to me is the most exciting thing. Now that question is not an abstract scientific question. It’s a concrete one that we can answer.”
Mr Grunsfield said the discovery of water not only made it easier for areas to pinpoint to look for life during future searches, but it will also make it easier to send a manned mission to Mars.
“To be able to live on the surface – the resources are there,” he said.
However, Mr Ojha said there was plenty of work to be done before this became a possibility.
“We’re just starting to scratch the surface about these features, and there’s a long way to go before we can safely say it is a habitable place or it has biological potential,” he said. “If humanity ever goes to Mars, this is probably an excellent source of water for consumption or rocket fuel.”
Director of planetary science at NASA headquarters Jim Green said every discovery made by scientists helps humans understand the fascinating planet.
“We now know Mars was a planet very much like Earth with warm salty seas, with freshwater lakes, probably snow-capped peaks and clouds, and a water cycle just like we’re studying here on Earth,” he said.
“But something has happened to Mars and it lost its water, but we still have in the atmosphere and on the surface for the most part.”