Scientists Discover New Potential Source of Liquid Water on Mars

October 5, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


Dark streaks at Garni Crater on Mars, hypothesized to be formed by flow of liquid waterDark narrow streaks, up to few hundred yards long, emanate from the walls of Garni Crater on Mars. The streaks are hypothesized to be formed by flow of briny liquid water on Mars. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

NASA scientists announced on Monday, September 28, that they had discovered exciting new evidence of water on Mars. The scientists involved argue that this discovery points to the possibility of life in some form existing on Mars. They wrote: “Determining whether liquid water exists on the Martian surface is central to understanding the hydrologic cycle and potential for extant life on Mars.” This is spurring plans for further exploration. If life were found on Mars, the planet most like the Earth in our solar system, it would be the first time life was found to exist outside the Earth. It would be tremendously valuable scientifically, and it could lead to a much fuller understanding of what life is and what possible forms it could take. And it would challenge further the unscientific and religious views that the Earth is the center of the universe. And even if life is not discovered in the near future, the discovery of potential new sources of water will certainly add to an understanding of Mars and how planets like the Earth develop.

Mars was very different in the past, with much more water and a dense atmosphere. But today overall, it is very cold and dry, in part because its atmospheric pressure is 100 times lower than the Earth’s. Mars probes have discovered that it has big deposits of ice at its poles, but it is so cold and the atmospheric pressure so low that the water molecules can go from ice to free movement as vapor in one jump, without going through a liquid state. Since liquid water is crucial to life as it is currently known, this was part of why it seemed unlikely that life could exist on Mars. In addition, because the atmosphere is so thin, radiation from the sun hits hard in the daytime and this too would make it harder for any kind of life to survive on the surface of the planet.

The recent discovery comes from thin, dark streaks discovered in 2010. These streaks appear on hillsides or slopes and change with the seasons, becoming darker in the spring, especially on slopes facing the sun, and lighter in the Martian autumn. They are scientifically known as recurring slope lineae (RSL). Analyzing data from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, scientists have recently been able to decipher some of the chemical composition of these RSLs. They found salts of different kinds in the streaks: “magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate and sodium perchlorate.” This implies that the changes in the streaks over time happen because the RSLs could be very salty water that flows and changes with the seasons.

This discovery is interesting and important, and to have salty water flowing on Mars opens up many new questions. One important one is where does this water come from. Some scientists argue that it comes from the Martian atmosphere. Others argue that there isn’t enough water in the atmosphere, and it more likely comes from sources of water underground.

The tantalizing possibility of unexpected sources of liquid water opens up at least the possibility that life could exist in some form on Mars. Scientists are thinking along the lines of bacteria that exist in near-boiling water or in deep cold in very extreme environments on Earth. A basic scientific point here is that the new discovery, based on uncovering and then analyzing new evidence, reveals something about the universe and opens up pathways for further investigation and discovery.




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