On September 28, 2015, NASA announced to the world that it can now prove liquid water exists on Mars. This is astounding news from NASA: we’ve all long suspected that Mars could hold answers about life outside Earth, but the dusty deserts never yielded concrete proof.
As the nearest planet to us in just about every sense, Mars has always looked to be the most likely place for us to visit. It seems highly likely that the Red Planet once contained its own life, but we’ve never been able to locate evidence. This new discovery from NASA is set to change how we consider our planetary neighbor and will direct space exploration for many years to come.
The big discovery: NASA announces liquid water exists on Mars
The last 20 years has led to some big changes in our understanding of Mars. As the planet most resembling our own, it has always been the logical place to look for life. NASA has sent five of its state of the art robotic explorers to investigate the planet, and we’ve seen some sensational images and evidence that confirms this exciting theory.
We’ve learned that Mars is probably in the later stages of its life cycle, and that water once existed there in abundance. We’ve also learned that solid frozen water exists there, under the dusty surface. Mars has polar ice caps just like our own, with thick, subsurface ice that may once have formed oceans and lakes. With a far cooler temperature than Earth, scientists had believed the chance of finding liquid water would be slim – though not impossible.
Recent discoveries over at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the HiRISE imaging project have turned up some surprising information. Images suggest that liquid water not only exists on Mars today, but we have photographs of it running across the landscape and forming gullies in the planet’s surface. The idea that the current landscape of Mars is evolving and changing is big news to scientists; it gives them a direction to work in, and opens up the possibility of putting boots on Mars one day. It might even show us where to look for alien life!
1. The water discovered on Mars is salty and contains elements we know well from Earth
[Photo credit] NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
Finding water on another planet is one thing, but is it water as we know it or some new liquid substance? Scientists are confident that this is familiar H2O as we know it, since the water conforms to the same conditions it would on Earth. However, the temperature on Mars is much lower than here: around -23 degrees Celcius (-10 degrees Farenheit) at its highest. That’s well below the freezing point of water, so how can it appear as a liquid?
Investigations by the Mars Rover teams have discovered the presence of salts in soil samples taken from the area. These compacted salts have also been identified in the drier, lower desert regions of the planet. These chlorates and perchlorates are known from desert regions on Earth, and strongly suggest that the water on Mars is briny or salty – just like the sea. This is important, because it explains how the water is appearing as a liquid. Salt lowers the freezing point of water; that’s why the roads are salted in icy weather. It causes melting at reduced temperatures, and could be preventing the freezing of Mars’ surface water during warmer days or seasons.
2. The water could be reabsorbed from the atmosphere during a seasonal climate shift
[Photo credit] Martin-Torres and Zorzano
With no known life, scarce resources and a barren, empty landscape, Mars seems pretty bleak at first glance. If water exists on the planet as part of an active water cycle, it’s a strong indication that our neighboring planet works just like ours does. Scientists know that Mars has “weather” just like us: evidence of snowfall has been noted in some places, and the planet’s orbit gives it cooler and warmer periods just like our own days, nights and seasons.
This recent discovery suggests the planet may be much more complex than we first thought. Those shifts in temperature can actually cause noticeable changes in the planet’s physical characteristics, encouraging water to flow and chemicals to hydrate. We know from Earth that life needs water to survive, and that where water exists, life can always find a way. Mars might be demonstrating its own water cycle just like ours, with water vapor liquefying and falling back to the ground.
Of course, it’s just as possible that water is flowing from under the surface rather than over it. Polar ice caps are known to expand during colder months, and could potentially cover the whole surface at times. That water could be entering the topsoil as liquids during warmer months, before draining and returning as subsurface ice during cold nights and “winter” seasons. Either way, NASA will now continue to “Follow the Water” as per their main mission, trying to locate just where this water is coming from.
3. The discovery of water on Mars might offer a glimpse into Earth’s future
The water patterns and behaviors we’re spotting on Mars are very similar to those back home. Earth and Mars seem to consist of the same chemical compounds, and elements seem to show the same properties in both locations.
We know that we’re in the “Goldilocks” zone, with just the right conditions to support life, while Mars appears just outside of the required range. But this might not be how it always was. Mars demonstrates a lot of geological features that also appear on Earth. It has gullies and trenches, valleys, cliffs and shaped rock formations. We know from our own planet that one thing is crucial in making these features: liquid water.
“Mars was once a planet very much like us” – NASA’s Dr. Jim Green
For Mars to demonstrate clear cut rock formations on its surface, scientists have to assume that surface water once existed there. Hollows that mimic our own river beds can be clearly seen in NASA’s photographs, and there is speculation that whole oceans could once have existed. Even now, thick polar ice caps contain enough water to feasibly create a “sea level” on much of the surface but the low temperatures ensure that Mars remains frozen for now.
So could Mars once have looked like Earth?
If that is the case, are we headed for the same fate one day?
Perhaps as the Sun’s energy retreats and our own temperatures fall, we’ll also watch our oceans disappear and our green lands turn to open desert. Of course, we’re millions of years from such a radical climate shift and certainly won’t see it for ourselves. But could this new information about water on Mars help us conserve our own supplies better, and direct technology to ensure a longer human survival? We might be able to learn some valuable lessons from the fate of Mars and its water supplies.
4. We could potentially visit and use the water there
Getting to Mars is a huge challenge. We’ve been able to land unmanned craft there, and we’re learning a lot from experiments they can conduct. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) is sending us back imaging that proves the liquid water theory, Phoenix confirmed the presence of ice water on Mars back in 2008, and international favorite Curiosity keeps sending back its quirky selfies against the Martian backdrop. However, we’ve not seen it for ourselves yet.
Modern film and fiction is obsessed with the idea of reaching Mars, and 2015 will bring us another blockbuster with a Mars travel theme, because traveling there is becoming a very real possibility. NASA has stated it could be ready to launch a manned Mars mission as soon as 2023. The catch? It’s likely to be a one-way trip, given the large distance and the amount of resources needed.
Could water on Mars change that? If a ship didn’t need to carry as much water and fuel because it could pick up resources from Mars, it could move faster and reach the planet much quicker. A return trip could also become possible.
If the water discovered on Mars is indeed viable for use as drinking water, then space travel could start to expand in a major way. It could even open the door further, allowing a venture into the asteroid belt beyond Mars – or even a Jupiter flyby. Of course, this is all just speculation right now; we first need to investigate these water sources further before such a trip could become possible.
5. Growing plants…and oxygen
The atmosphere on Mars is not suited for humans. It is thick, filled with carbon dioxide, and therefore highly toxic. We wouldn’t be able to breathe unaided, even if we could reach the planet. But could plant life be the answer? Plants are key to our life on Earth. They take in harmful CO2 and return oxygen, neutralizing the environment. If we could grow plants on Mars and contain them in sealed, greenhouse-style chambers, we could purify the air and make the buildings inhabitable. But would plants grow there?
Chances are they could. The desert soils of Mars are similar in nature to our own deserts. If water exists and the soil quality is good enough, it seems that there’s no reason Earth plants couldn’t be transplanted into the Martian landscape. This would provide fresh air and a food source for any visitors, allowing a break during space travel or giving explorers a base to work from.
6. Life may already be on Mars – we just haven’t found it yet
As well as the possibility of taking our own plant life to Mars with us, there’s a chance that humans could discover new life forms. After all, we know from experience on Earth that where water exists, so does life. Our oceans, caves, polar regions and wetlands all support life in their own ways, and wherever humans have been able to reach so far, forms of life have been identified by biologists.
So if Mars has water – and liquid water at that – it would make sense to assume that it also supports life. This may not be life as we recognize it on Earth. There could well be new species that has adapted to its unique conditions. Equally, there could be life forms similar to those we have back home. Either way, scientists now have a much better idea as to where such life may be with this new discovery.
Even if life is not uncovered, that doesn’t mean it didn’t once exist there. As Mars has undergone radical change in its temperature and physical composition, perhaps life there has become unsustainable. River beds and streams can still hold clues to the life that once flowed through them.
7. A new era of space exploration is beginning
NASA is now faced with a new set of challenges. The first is to analyze this flowing water more closely so NASA can work out just what it is and where it comes from. None of the current craft are designed for climbing in such a manner, so there’s currently no way of getting to these observed water sources. That means we can expect some pretty cool new space explorers in the coming years to join the current team. This discovery could also bring forward the first manned mission to Mars.
The second challenge is more complex; there are restrictions on how close NASA can currently get to the water, even if we made it to Mars. International space law protects planets from Earth contamination, especially where water is involved.
NASA will need to prove that they can send a “clean” craft and crew to the water source if they want to see it up close. The fear is that our own planet’s organisms are pretty resilient and could survive a space mission, setting up home in the nearest new water source. That means that until there’s a sterile way to get there, we’re limited to imaging processes for now.
With the next Mars Rover mission scheduled for 2020, we may well have to wait a few years before we get the next update. However, this is a fantastic advancement for space exploration, and it gives NASA a fresh new focus. NASA will continue on its mission to “follow the water,” and hopefully we’ll soon know just where it’s coming from – and whether we can use it.
90's girl with a love of retro games and old school consoles - currently in the market for a working Commodore 64...
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