Evidence of flowing water has been found on the surface of Mars, NASA scientists announced Monday. Despite the groundbreaking revelation, there is a “long way to go” before it can be confirmed whether the red planet can sustain life.
Dark streaks found on the surface of Mars highlight the presence of hydrated salts, chemical analysis show. These streaks absorb light at specific wavelengths that are known to pull water from the planet’s atmosphere – a process called as deliquescence – according to Lujendra Ojha, Ph.D. candidate in planetary science, who first discovered the streaks while he was a student at the University of Arizona in 2011.
While these chemicals will lower the freezing point of water, they will also allow the water to not boil at higher temperatures. “We can safely say that some sort of liquid water activity is involved in the formation mechanism of these,” Ojha said. “It’s been three years of trial and error to get these readings.”
Although the discovery of flowing water does not verify presence of life on Mars, it provides the possibility of existence of certain microbes. “The existence of liquid water, even if it is super salty briny water, gives the possibility that if there’s life on Mars, that we have a way to describe how it might survive,” John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, said, as reported by CNN.
At present, it hasn’t been determined where the flowing water is originating. Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, said that remains to be figured in the next round of investigations. As reported by Christian Science Monitor, scientists have said that the minimum volume of water required to explain the streaks discovered would fill almost 40 Olympic sized swimming pools.
“That sounds like a lot if it’s all in one place. But that’s dispersed over a very wide area,” Alfred McEwen, a researcher at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, said. “So what we’re dealing with is thin layers of wet soil.” He further adds that there could be a greater volume of water across the planet, as the surface of Mars is quite large.
The chemical composition of streaks was analyzed at four different locations. “By using the HiRise visible light camera and the CHRISM spectrometer aboard the same spacecraft, we could look at the same surface and acquire both pictures and … spectra data to tell us about the chemical information at the same time,” Ojha said.
Hydrated salts were discovered in all of the streaks. “We detected magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate and sodium perchlorate,” Ojha said. He further explained that sodium and magnesium perchlorates stabilize water to a greater extent. The freezing point of water lowers by 72 to 126 degrees F., depending on the type, when perchlorates are added; meanwhile, the boiling point of water upon adding perchlorates enhances by 75 degrees F.
“The presence of perchlorates vastly increases the stability of water on the surface of Mars,” he says.
According to ABC.net.au, Astrophysicist Professor, Geraint Lewis, of the University of Sydney said the discovery showed “critical evidence” that the streaks were formed by “at least dribbling” water.
“This new result bolsters the argument for water on the surface of our planetary companion,” he said. Dr Amanda Bauer, from the Australian Astronomical Observatory, said. “I can simply say that the potential presence of liquid water on the surface of Mars is incredibly exciting because water is essential for life as we know it to exist. More work is needed to understand how exactly these seasonal salty water streams are formed on Mars, but the new evidence for water flow is certainly an exciting step forward in understanding water activity on Mars.”
Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA, said that the discovery announced on Monday could answer the million dollar question of whether or not we are alone in the universe. “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, a great opportunity to be in the right locations on Mars to thoroughly investigate that.”
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