NASA Confirms Signs of Water Flowing on Mars, Possible Niches for Life
Scientists have for the first time confirmedliquid water flowing on the surface of present-day Mars, a finding that will add to speculation that life, if it ever arose there, could persist now.
|Jet Propulsion Laboratory/University of Arizona/NASA|
“This is tremendously exciting,” James L. Green, the director of NASA’s planetary science division, said during a news conference on Monday. “We haven’t been able to answer the question, ‘Does life exist beyond Earth?’ But following the water is a critical element of that. We now have, I think, great opportunities in the right locations on Mars to thoroughly investigate that.”
That marks a shift in tone for NASA, where officials have repeatedly played down the notion that the dusty and desolate landscape of Mars could be inhabited today.
But now, John M. Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science, talked of sending a spacecraft in the 2020s to one of these regions, perhaps with experiments to directly look for life.
NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Evidence points to flow of briny water on Mars (photos)NASA announced today that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has revealed possible evidence of flowing water during the warmest months on Mars.
Dark spines of what scientists believe may be salt water has been repeatedly seen flowing down the steep slopes of middle latitudes of Mars' southern hemisphere.
"The best explanation for these observations so far is the flow of briny water," said Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona.
This series of orbital imagery combined with 3D modeling shows warm-season features that might be evidence of salty liquid water active on Mars today.
This map of Mars shows relative locations of three types of findings related to salt or frozen water, plus a new type of finding that may be related to both salt and water.
Shallow subsurface water ice found by the Gamma Ray Spectrometer and Neutron Spectrometer on NASA's Mars Odyssey orbiter is depicted in colors signifying concentrations.
The presence of hydrogen, shown in blue, signifies higher concentrations of water ice.
The white squares mark locations of impact craters in the northern hemisphere which exposed water ice close to the surface. Red squares mark locations where the Thermal Emission Imaging System on Mars Odyssey has found deposits of chlorite may have resulted from evaporation of salty water.
On Earth, chilled but unfrozen brine in rocky permafrost environments provides habitats for the growth of organisms and could provide habitats in similar conditions on Mars.
Cryopegs are isolated pockets of highly saline, liquid water that is permanently subzero (Celsius) in temperature due to chilling by the surrounding permafrost.
In this graphic, mm-cm refers to depths below the ground surface of millimeters to centimeters in vertical scale (fractions of an inch); cm-m refers to depths of centimeters to meters scale (half an inch to several yards); m-km refers to depths of meters to kilometers scale (a yard to a few miles); and 10's km refers to depth of tens of kilometers (several miles or more).
From Mars' Newton crater, at 41.6 degrees south latitude, 202.3 degrees east longitude, the HiRise Camera captured this series of images from early spring of one Mars year to mid-summer of the following year.
During warm seasons, small dark features, called recurring slope lineae, appear and incrementally grow during warm seasons and fade in cold seasons, extend downslope possibly signifying the presence of liquid water.
However, "The flows are not dark because of being wet," said Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona. "They are dark for some other reason."
These five images were taken from early spring of one Mars year to mid-summer of the following year, during the warm season when surface temperatures range from about 10 degrees below zero Fahrenheit to 80 degrees above zero Fahrenheit.
Dark flows in Mars' Newton Crater extend downslope, right to left, from bedrock outcrops. More than 1,000 individual flows have been discovered from 0.5 to 5 yards wide with lengths hundreds of yards long.
Even in the warm season Mars is too cold for pure water. This suggests the presence of salt water, which has lower freezing points.
Salt deposits over much of Mars indicate brines were abundant in Mars' past. These recent observations suggest brines still may form near the surface today in limited times and places.
When these slopes were checked with the orbiter's Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), no sign of water appeared, which means the features may either quickly dry on the surface or could be shallow subsurface flows.
"What we're observing here is the spectroscopic signature of perchlorates that are hydrated by water," he explained to me via phone from France on Sunday. "These perchlorate salts have salt crystals that have molecules of water in them."
Spying these salts strongly suggests the mystery dark lines on Mars really are as wet as they look, according to Ojha and his co-authors.
We can't say for sure that Mars harbors all the necessary ingredients to support life, but a new landmark finding strengthens the case that flowing, liquid Martian water could sustain life on the Red Planet and perhaps one day, us too.
It's not quite the Dead Sea or the Great Salt Lake, but it is the confirmation Lujendra Ojhahas been looking for the past few years -- that there is flowing, briny water on or near the surface of Mars. Ojha is the Georgia Tech graduate student who first helped spot so-called "recurring slope lineae" (RSL) when he was just an undergrad. RSL are seasonal dark, finger-shaped markings on Martian slopes that look an awful lot like liquid flowing downhill to create wet sand or soil.
"This is the smoking gun," Ojha told CNET. "This is as good as we're going to get with the current technology."
Streaks of Flowing Water on Mars
Images showing what scientists say is definitive evidence of salty liquid water flowing on Mars.
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