NASA Announces Evidence of Liquid Water on the Surface of Mars

What H20 means for the future of the Red Planet

image via NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

NASA scientists reported Monday that they have discovered compelling evidence to suggest there is liquid water on the surface of Mars. If true, naturally occurring liquid water would not only be a hugely significant factor in any eventual manned mission to the red planet, but raises the possibility of microbial life existing on the Martian surface already.

By analyzing high-resolution photographs, and spectrographic imaging taken from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a team of scientists determined that reddish streaking seen on various Martian slopes was due to “hydrated minerals” which correspond to the presence of liquid H2O. These formations, called “recurring slope lineae” (RSL), suggest the presence of a particular form of salt which alters the freezing point of Martian water, resulting in its ability to remain liquid for extended periods of time–specifically, within certain seasonal conditions. While the slopes have long been suspected to have a connection with the presence of liquid water, Monday’s announcement–and accompanying paper, published in the journal Nature Geoscience–represents a major step forward.

In a release put out by NASA, John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, and a former astronaut himself, says:

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. This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water -- albeit briny -- is flowing today on the surface of Mars.”

An animation put out by NASA shows the RSL as they ebb and flow during Mars’ warm season:

While water has been found on a number of other astronomical bodies, it has thus far only been seen the form of ice, frozen in polar caps, or atmospheric vapor.

Prior to Monday’s announcement, observers predicted that NASA was preparing to claim victory in the hunt for water, after noticing that Lujendra Ojha, a Ph.D candidate in Planetary Science at the Georgia Institute of Technology was slated to appear. As an undergraduate, Ojha had been among the first to draw a connection between RSL and the potential for Martian water. In the same NASA release, Ojha explained:

When most people talk about water on Mars, they're usually talking about ancient water or frozen water. Now we know there’s more to the story. This is the first spectral detection that unambiguously supports our liquid water-formation hypotheses for RSL.

image via NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

So what does this mean moving forward? Well, a lot.

Evidence of liquid water existing on a planet other than Earth will almost certainly affect the way NASA, and other space agencies, look at crafting a manned mission to Mars; If liquid water does exist on the Martian surface, could it be enough for Astronauts to drink? To grow crops? To chemically split, in order to harvest enough hydrogen to fuel a trip home?

The presence of Martian water also raises the possibility that microbial life could exist on the planet’s surface. While there is little evidence of that thus far, NASA’s discovery suggests, at the least, that conditions could potentially be right for such life to exist.

Michael Meyer, NASA’s Mars Exploration Program’s lead researcher put it simply:

“It seems that the more we study Mars, the more we learn how life could be supported and where there are resources to support life in the future.”