NASA finds evidence for liquid water on Mars

Una Harty reports on the recent announcement by NASA about the discovery of liquid water on the planet Mars.


If you type “mars” into google, the first suggestion that Google presents you with is “mars water”. The idea was put forward initially in 2010 when undergraduate student, Lujendra Ojha from the University of Arizona, found transitory streaks on the side of a slope on the fourth planet from the sun. As inquisitive beings, we’ve always been a little fascinated with the notion of the existence of “Martians”, the term first coined in 1883 by WS Lach-Szyrma. The Martians appeared in Wars of the Worlds in 1898 and in 1932 the Mars Bar was released. From 1970 onwards, NASA have been sending missions into space designed to investigate the red planet.

The big news

Since September 28 of this year, the world has been captivated by NASA’s discovery that liquid water exists on our nearest planetary neighbour. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, or MRO, managed to capture stunning images of streaks on one of the many Martian mountains. This means that water must have flowed down these slopes due to the formation of the indentation. The MRO conducted further tests using a spectrometer, a device used to analyse the chemical elements present in a sample, to confirm that hydrated minerals had been present on these slopes. It has been deduced that the water appears intermittently. Deep, darker lines are seen where the water flowed during the hotter periods on Mars; whereas the lighter coloured lines show a lesser flow during the cooler times.

Why does liquid water exists on Mars?

Many confuse Mars for a hot planet when in fact it is the opposite. High concentration of iron oxide gives Mars its red hue. And its nickname, the red planet, is rather contradictory as the temperatures on Mars fluctuate between -125 and 20 degrees celsius. If you know anything about science at all, you’d question the existence of liquid “H two O”  at such variations of temperature. So how can it be? The reason for this is the water on Mars does not exist as pools of water, but more as “thin layers of wet soil”, states Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona. In addition to this, the water is said to exist in brine form. Salt reduces the freezing point of water and hence this would support further evidence as to how liquid water could exist in such a cold environment.

Is Mars unique?

But Mars isn’t our first discovery of exoplanetary water. Europa, one of Jupiter’s sixty two moons, is covered in ice. Underneath the ice, there is believed to be a deep reservoir of liquid water. This abundance of water holds tantalising prospects for our extra-terrestrial search, with NASA are launching missions specially designed to explore Europa and other moons, Ganymede and Callisto around the 2020 mark. European Juice, or Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer, will answer some of the most topical questions astronomy has ever asked when they scan for complex, organic material on these moons. Titan, one of the more well-known of Saturn’s copious moons, is also known for its sub-surface ocean.

In the case of Mars, there most definitely could be the remnants of once great oceans buried deep below the surface. These vast expansions of mineral-rich waters would have covered the planet. This also poses a potential challenge, as it may be necessary to tunnel into Mars’ crust in order to search for life.

What is the next mission?

The next obvious question to arise is: can life exist on Mars, now that water does? The answer is yes. However there is one condition we must consider if it is briny water that was found. NASA stated via Twitter that life is not guaranteed on Mars as of yet as “life as we know it couldn’t survive if too salty”.

The controversy and dangers of the mission

However controversy surrounds this discovery as, on October 4, NASA have issued a statement saying they cannot collect the water on Mars due to international law regulations. The Outer Space Treaty, established in 1967, states that “no nation can send a mission of human or robotic form close to an extra-terrestrial water source due to fears of contamination of it and the life we have on earth”. Currently their Curiosity Rover is a mere thirty miles from a location where NASA believe water to be flowing. This law means that they aren’t permitted to collect the water even for forensic testing, putting the chance of a revolutionary discovery on hold for now.

There is irony to this situation. NASA’s equipment could easily have carried harmful bacteria from earth or indeed collected during its 140-million-mile journey through space from its Californian base. NASA do put every piece of their equipment destined for space through rigorous processes involving ultraviolet light but there is no way they can prevent microbes attaching themselves to their crafts post decontamination.

There is another obstacle in our way of investigating water on Mars; the terrain. The Curiosity Rover would find it virtually impossible to navigate itself across the region which boasts the indentation and streaks. Even then, the next destined Mars exploration voyage in 2020 isn’t suitable either and nor do they have the time to adjust the Rover. It seems that the analysation of Mars’ water is a long time away even if they can guarantee 100% sterilisation of the equipment and robotics.

In case of a Martian invasion, here are some facts you should know:

  • Volume: 1.6318×1011 km^3, or 0.151 that of Earth
  • Surface gravity: 3.72 m/s^2 compared to Earth’s 9.81m/s^2
  • Revolutionary period: 687 days. This means all of Mars’ seasons are twice as long as ours.
  • One day: 24 hours.
  • Atmosphere: 95.3% carbon dioxide, 2.7% nitrogen, 1.6% argon, 0.15% oxygen and 0.03% water
  • Contains the largest known volcano in the entire solar system, Olympus Mons (three times the height of Everest)
  • Mars gets its distinctive red colour from the chemical iron oxide which has a consistency of talcum powder. In ancient times people associated it with blood, and hence why Mars is the Roman god of war.
  • It would take you sixteen months to travel to Mars and back again.
  • Mars doesn’t have an ozone layer. This means it is subjected to some very harmful radiation.
  • Mars houses the most violent and largest dust storms in our entire solar system. The winds reach speeds of 125mph and cover the entire planet during the storm.
  • Unlike Earth, Mars’ crust is made up of one piece as opposed to many tectonic plates like our home planet.
  • A winter in Mars encompasses 20% of the air freezing.
  • Galileo Galilee was the first person to observe Mars through a telescope (his own) in 1609.

Una Harty

Úna is a third year Nanoscience student and Trinity Life editor for Trinity News.