In a significant leap forward for our understanding of the solar system and in laying the foundations for humankind to become interplanetary, NASA today announced evidence that briny water is flowing on present-day Mars. Among other ramifications, this increases the likelihood that forms of life may yet be found on the Red Planet.
It has been suspected that Mars was once home to vast amounts of water, before losing most of its water content to space following the planet’s failure to sustain a strong magnetosphere and atmosphere. Today, we generally think of our second nearest neighbour as a desolate, rusty rock, but have long hoped that water may still flow on or immediate beneath the planet’s surface and today’s announcement provides the greatest certainty yet that the planet does have an active water cycle.
Researchers studied the presence of mysterious dark streaks that extend down some Martian slopes and that seem clearest and darkest during warm seasons, before fading away at colder times of the year. These streaks, known as recurring slope lineae (RSL) are now thought to have been caused by flows of salty water.
The latest findings were discovered using an imaging spectrometer aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). This device allowed researchers to detected signatures of hydrated minerals called perchlorates on the slopes where the RSL were seen. The spectrometer observed signatures of hydrated salts at multiple RSL locations, but only when the dark features were relatively wide. When the researchers looked at the same locations and RSL weren’t as extensive, they detected no hydrated salt. This further indicates the seasonality and low volume of the flows that reach the planet’s surface, but is nevertheless a thrilling indicator that life may be now – or in the future – sustained on Mars.
“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 video below displays a 3D rendering of one of the sites that seems to be home to the seasonal water flows.
While highly concentrated salt solutions are unlikely to support life as we know it, the presence of hydrated flows on a planet so close to our own makes humanity’s dreams of becoming able to survive on other planets all the more feasible. This latest breakthough is important for the role it plays in unraveling some of the mysteries regarding the Red Planet’s atmospheric and seasonal activity, and for identifying important building-blocks for life that exist on or very close to the surface of Mars.