Sammy Nickalls
September 28, 2015 6:21 pm

Remember last month, when people were “finding life” on Mars via weirdly-shaped rocks in pics taken by the NASA Mars Curiosity Rover? And we were spooked but intrigued and wondered if life on Mars is really, actually possible?  Well, scientists have found something seriously legit that could suggest that Mars IS, in fact, a life-sustaining planet: evidence that liquid water flows on Mars today.

“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,” John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a NASA statement. “This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water — albeit briny — is flowing today on the surface of Mars.”

The researchers used an image spectrometer on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to detect “darkish streaks” of “hydrated minerals” that appear to “ebb and flow over time,” according to NASA’s website. The streaks can be found in several different locations on Mars, and only when the temperature is above minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit — they disappear when the temperature drops. According to NASA, the downhill flows are known as “recurring slope lineae” (RSL), and they have “often been described as possibly related to liquid water”:

Researchers have found thousands of RSLs. “We found the hydrated salts only when the seasonal features were widest, which suggests that either the dark streaks themselves or a process that forms them is the source of the hydration,” Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, lead author of a report on these findings, said in the statement. “In either case, the detection of hydrated salts on these slopes means that water plays a vital role in the formation of these streaks.”

So what does this mean? It means that, even if life never existed on Mars, there may be a chance that the planet could be sustainable now. “This is tremendously exciting,” James L. Green, the director of NASA’s planetary science division, said during a news conference today, according to the New York Times. “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, great opportunities in the right locations on Mars to thoroughly investigate that.”

During the press conference, Grunsfeld even spoke about the possibility of sending a spacecraft next decade to Mars — possibly to directly look for life. “I can’t imagine that it won’t be a high priority with the scientific community,” he said, according to NYT.

That said, a lot is still, of course, unknown. For example, scientists do not know where the water came from. “There are two basic origins for the water: from above or from below,” Alfred S. McEwen, a professor of planetary geology at the University of Arizona, the principal investigator of MRO images and one of the authors of the paper, said according to NYT. “. . . We have very poor measurements of relative humidity near the surface.”

Another thing to note: the water may be so salty or filled with chemicals that it cannot actually sustain life. According to NYT, NASA astrobiologist Christopher P. McKay highlighted that, for the water to be liquid on Mars surface, it would be salty. “The short answer for habitability is it means nothing,” he said, citing Don Juan Pond in Antarctica, which remains liquid all year even in subzero temperatures due to calcium chloride salt. “You fly over it, and it looks like a beautiful swimming pool. But the water has got nothing.”

However, others, such as Southwest Research Institute’s space studies department David E. Stillman, believe that even this assertion should be taken with caution. “If it was too salty, they would be flowing year round,” Dr. Stillman said. “We might be in that Goldilocks zone.”

Either way, history has been made, and we can’t wait to see what comes next after this groundbreaking discovery.

( Images via Twitter)

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