Right on the heels of last weekend’s lunar eclipse, NASA has come out with a major announcement: new spectral data gathered by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO)—a spacecraft that studies the planet from orbit—has confirmed that liquid water exists on the surface of Mars!
This is the first direct evidence of a long-suspected theory and clears up at least one mystery on the Red Planet. Researchers have known that water exists on Mars in ice form, but it’s never been confirmed if water can remain in a liquid state. The space agency is claiming that we now have that answer.
Scientists have theorized for years that Mars was once home to a large ocean more than 4 billion years ago. And recent findings from the Mars Curiosity rover suggest that liquid water exists just underneath the Martian surface. These recent findings seem to offer more direct evidence of liquid water than most.
The discovery of water on Mars has almost become a joke among planetary scientists. The Verge reports that when Alfred McEwen, a planetary geologist at Planetary Image Research Laboratory who also worked on this research, heard the big news, he exclaimed: “Congratulations—you’ve discovered water on Mars for the 1,000th time!”
As much as it is a recurring discovery, this time around there’s no ambiguity. Since 2010, NASA has stared intensely at images from the MRO spacecraft that showed dark streaks on the Martian surface. These streaks seemed to grow thicker and longer in the warmer seasons; then they would fade and shrink at times when Mars is colder.
“[The streaks] loved forming at temperatures that were right for liquid water to exist,” study author Lujendra Ojha, a graduate student at Georgia Tech, told The Verge. Ojha and his team speculated that when conditions are warm enough, liquid water filled with perchlorates—a type of salt—flow downhill on the planet’s sloping geological features. This causes the dark streaks that NASA has been observing for years.
Now the question becomes: Where is this water coming from? Ojha noted there are three possible sources. First, the perchlorates may be pulling water out of the Martian atmosphere when the air grows particularly humid. The water also may be from a subsurface reservoir of ice that turns into liquid when it comes in contact with the salts. There’s even the possibility of an aquifer that is generating the water needed for the briny flows.
Of course, the biggest speculation is that this unambiguous proof of liquid water on Mars strengthens the possibility of finding microbial life on the Red Planet. The presence of liquid water on Earth is intimately linked with the formation of life, so the odds are better than ever that extraterrestrial organisms are nearby in our Solar System.
But whatever the case, this is exciting news and is already spurring the desire to explore Mars with our own eyes. We already have plans to send another rover to join Curiosity, and we’re hoping to have a space shuttle and team of astronauts in place to take the long awaited journey to Mars by 2035.
The landmark moment of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon in 1969 has been etched into our imaginations and our history books. It may not be long before another stargazer leaves earth for another frontier where none have ever stood before!