Water on Mars–Where Do We Go From Here?

Narrow, dark streaks (RSL) on slopes of Hale Crater of Mars indicate subsurface water (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Narrow, dark streaks (RSL) on slopes of Hale Crater of Mars indicate subsurface water (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Water on Mars–Where Do We Go From Here?

Today’s exciting NASA press briefing confirmed what we suspected: Mars has water flows, at least intermittently. Where water flows, there is a good possibility of life, but what exactly do these conditions signify?

“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.”

The impressive instrument that made this possible is CRISM (Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars) aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), in tandem with HiRISE imagery. Analysis revealed the presence of perchlorates, hydrated minerals that are both a boon to keeping liquid water in its liquid state on Mars, and a curse in being a health hazard to the human thyroid.

Perchlorates act much as salt does on icy roads, lowering the freezing point of the water, so that the liquid water seeping to the surface remains liquid at a much wider range of temperatures than pure water would. Liquid water means an environment for movement: of metabolic materials, of dissolved solutes, even of organisms themselves. Liquid water is crucial in our expectations of making any planet habitable.

Perchlorates also (very handily) can be used to make rocket propellant. Accessible aluminium perchlorate on Mars would make human travel that much easier, by providing a way to make a material for the return trip on-site. One of the drawbacks of Mars human exploration has been the immense cost of transporting materials all the way to the planet to use for the return trip.

Earth has families of microorganisms that metabolize perchlorates. Mars may also have microbial life that has survived on these compounds, too. Perhaps they have developed adaptation mechanisms that will be useful for us in adapting to Mars’ climate and environment.

Recurring slope lineae (RSL) are the dark lines streaking the slopes of the Garni Crater of Mars (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Recurring slope lineae (RSL) are the dark lines streaking the slopes of the Garni Crater of Mars (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

“When most people talk about water on Mars, they’re usually talking about ancient water or frozen water,” said Lujendra Ojha, discoverer of the recurring slope lineae  (RSL). “Now we know there’s more to the story.”

Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA reminded us all that NASA’s role includes caution in research, and the protection of not only Earth space travelers, but of the rest of the universe from Earth. This caution leads to lengthy exploration timescales. Still, the participants confirmed that now, we can begin a “better search,” focused on the areas that likely contain water…which may lead to the discovery of life, eventually.

What do you think? Join us in the discussion! Comment, share on Facebook, and find us on Twitter (hashtag #DMTalk).

Staff Writer

Leo Ashcraft

A retired broadcast engineer, talk show host, news reporter - I have done everything there is to do in the radio broadcast business. I worked a year in television. I left that as my true passion has always been radio - plus I got tired of hearing - you have a face for radio.. I hope you enjoy my articles! Be sure to share them excessively on facebook - like our page and bug your friends with invites!

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