NASA scientists find evidence of flowing water on Mars

planet mars
Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video on Foter.com / CC BY

Flowing water on Mars has been discovered running down craters and canyons.  According to scientists from NASA, the findings raise the chance of Mars being home to some type of life.

Before the leaks dry up in the autumn, they cause long, dark tints on the planet’s soil that can stretch hundreds of meters on the way down in the warmer months.

Pictures taken from orbit reveal cliffs, and the sheer walls of valleys and craters, marked with summertime streams that in the most active spots connect to create complex patterns.


From where does this water come from?


Well … researchers are uncertain, but it may surface from ice or salty aquifers below the ground, or condense from of the weak Martian atmosphere.

“We have liquid water on the face of the Red Planet,” stated Michael Meyer, the lead researcher on NASA’s Mars exploration project. “With this in mind, we can presume that it is likely to have some sort of habitable environment.”

One of the most promising signs so far for the possibility to find life on Mars is the discovery of water flows. This could lead NASA and other space agencies to new potential lading spots where water can be gathered as a natural supply for future human expeditions to the planet.

“Mars is no longer as dry and barren place as we used to think about it in the past” told Jim Green from NASA. “It has been discovered that liquid water can be found on Mars”

Judging from the information gathered from some of the earliest missions on Mars, the planet seems to have a watery past. Pictures are showing a surface covered with trails of dried-up lake and plains once submerged beneath vast ancient lakes, originally send to the Earth from the mission back in 1970s. Earlier the same year NASA has revealed evidence of once existing ocean that possibly covered almost half of the entire northern hemisphere.

 

mars surface
Image credit: NASA

Clues from the past


From time to time, Mars probes did discover some clues that the environment is perhaps still with some moisture in it. Almost a decade ago, Nasa’s Mars Global Surveyor has captured images of what look like water leaking out of a small valley wall and going between boulders and other rocky remains. In 2011, the high-resolution camera on Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took a picture of what looked like small streams falling down crater walls for the summer mounts period. Not leaving anything to mere guesses, mission researchers called the flows “recurring slope lineae” or RSL for short.

Scientists now rely on a different instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to study the chemistry of the strange RSL leaks. Lujendra Ojha, of Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, and his teammates worked with a spectrometer on the MRO to examine with infrared light mirrored off of the rocky walls when the dark marks were just starting to emerge, and at the moment that they were developed to full length.




 

Contributing to the journal Nature Geosciences, the scientists explain how they discovered infra-red indications for hydrated salts when the strange lines were present, but not even one before they had developed. The hydrated salts – a combination of chlorates and perchlorates – are a solid evidence for the existence of water at all the locations they had analyzed.


These are ideal locations to search for life!


“These locations are perfect to look for life close the surface of Mars,” stated Alfred McEwen, a planetary geologist at the University of Arizona and senior author on the research. “Even though it would be a very significant discovery to find proof of ancient life, it would be hard to figure out the biology of it. Current life is gonna be a lot more informative.”

The streaks only occur when the temperature on the surface of the planet rises above -23C ( -9.4 degrees Fahrenheit ). The water can be liquid in such extreme conditions due to the salts that lower the freezing point of water, sustaining a liquid form well below 0C.

mars surface streams
Image credit: NASA

John Bridges, a professor of planetary science at the University of Leicester, stated that these regions may be ideal to discover water supplies on Mars. Turning them into perfect locations to search for life, and a place for future human missions. But the one thing that is making wet areas like this hard to visit, is the fact that we must not contaminate them with microbes from our own planet. This is the difficult task that space agencies have to figure out before we set foot in space.


At the moment, scientists aim to discover where does the water comes from.


One possibility is that really rich saline aquifers span around beneath the soil, but formed as soaked volumes of granular rock. These can create leaks in some locations, but can’t really explain water flowing down from crater walls.

Another hypothesis, supported by McEwen, is that salts on the surface soak up water from the atmosphere until there is enough liquid to go leak out. This phenomenon is called deliquescence and can be observed in the Atacama desert here on Earth, where these humid areas are the only location good enough for microbes to live.

“The research is an interesting piece of work,” Bridges told. “Our first impressions about Mars are rapidly changing, and the discussion about them will be active for a long time in the future.”

 

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