NASA Says Water Flows on Mars

Posted September 28th, 2015 at 6:47 pm (UTC-5)
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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. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

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. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Today, NASA confirmed evidence of the presence of liquid water flowing on present-day Mars.

It’s most likely that any flowing Martian water is salty and not pure.

“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 in a press release.

“This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water — albeit briny — is flowing today on the surface of Mars,” he added.

Scientists, who used the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, said they have been able to identify the chemical signature of hydrated salts and minerals in the mysterious dark streaks that can been seen flowing down the slopes of a number of Martian hills and mountains and craters.

The scientists say these flowing streaks are known as ‘recurring slope lineae’ or RSL and had been thought in the past to be possibly linked with the flow of salty liquid water on Mars.

Scientists believe that these hydrated salts and minerals, called perchlorates, found in the Martian RSL’s lowers the freezing point of water just like salt helps snow and ice to melt rapidly here on Earth.  The salts could help normally frozen water on Mars to flow.

The confirmation of liquid water on Mars is outlined in a new study published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

“When most people talk about water on Mars, they’re usually talking about ancient water or frozen water,” said study lead author Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Dark narrow streaks called recurring slope lineae emanating out of the walls of Garni crater on Mars. The dark streaks here are up to few hundred meters in length. They are hypothesized to be formed by flow of briny liquid water on Mars. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Dark narrow streaks called recurring slope lineae emanating out of the walls of Garni crater on Mars. The dark streaks here are up to few hundred meters in length. They are hypothesized to be formed by flow of briny liquid water on Mars. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

“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,” he added.

It’s thought that the RSL’s hydrated salts are probably a mix of magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate and sodium perchlorate.  It has been shown that some of these perchlorate salts can keep liquid from freezing even if the temperature drops to -70 Celsius.

NASA said the appearance of RSLs vary throughout a Martian year.  They appear to be quite dark during the Red Planet’s warm seasons (-23° Celsius) and then lighten and disappear during colder seasons.

“These are dark streaks that form in late spring, grow through the summer and then disappear by fall,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in a televised press conference.

Ojha first noticed these mysterious dark streaks on Mars back in 2010 after studying images from the MRO’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE).  Those observations made by the HiRISE have verified the existence of RSLs at dozens of locations on Mars.

Back in September, 2013 NASA announced the first scoop of Martian soil analyzed by Curiosity Rover’s built-in laboratory has revealed a high amount of water.  “One of the most exciting results from this very first solid sample ingested by Curiosity is the high percentage of water in the soil,” said Curiosity researcher Laurie Leshin, of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at that time. “About 2 percent of the soil on the surface of Mars is made up of water, which is a great resource, and interesting scientifically.”

In December 2013, a team of researchers also released a series of papers that were published in the journal Science, revealed evidence of what was once an ancient fresh water lake on Mars that might have been capable of supporting life.

Earlier this year, an international team of scientists, who also wrote in the journal Science, said that their research suggested that an ancient ocean that held more water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean once flowed over an area of the surface of Mars that was larger than our own Atlantic Ocean.

Speaking at Monday’s teleconference, Mary Beth Wilhelm of NASA’s Ames Research Center and the Georgia Institute of Technology said water found on Mars could be an important resource for those who may someday explore or even perhaps colonize the Red Planet.  She added that the discovery of water could decrease the cost of and also increase the resilience of human activity on Mars.

This animation simulates a fly-around look at Hale Crater on Mars (NASA/JPL)

 

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

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