After an epic weekend of eclipse talk, NASA came out with a press conference that overshadowed much more than just the Moon. The announcement, as many had speculated, revealed that conclusive evidence shows there is flowing water on Mars. Like seasons on Earth, warmer conditions cause water to flow down steep hills and into valleys.
The speculation came due to the invitation of Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology to the NASA panel. Ojha noticed strange features on Mars as an undergraduate student in 2010, while looking at images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO)’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE). HiRISE observations now have documented dozens of sites on Mars where these features have formed from flowing liquid water.
The streaks are known as Recurring Slope Lineae (RSL), and were analyzed by both HiRiSE and MRO’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), which determines the minerals present. CRISM shows evidence of hydrated salts at several of the RSL locations on Mars, but only for those with relatively wide features. Many of the more narrow RSL showed no evidence of hydrated salts.
From the observations, the flows appear to form in the warm seasons, before fading in the cooler seasons and disappearing altogether. Originally thought to be unlikely, flowing water on Mars requires near-perfect combination of temperature, atmospheric pressure, and surface conditions.
“These are dark streaks that form in late spring, grow through the summer and then disappear in the fall,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program. “It took multiple spacecraft over several years to solve this mystery, and now we know there is liquid water on the surface of this cold, desert planet,” said Meyer. “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.”
And life is what is on everyone’s mind, since life is a seemingly natural consequence of flowing water. The information makes Mars feel so much more hospitable that it was before. Still, we have to remember that this is the same red planet we have always known, with a thin atmosphere, cold and harsh climate, and intense solar radiation from the lack of a magnetic field. Any life that exists on this world has got to be far more hardened than most life bound to Earth. Either way we have a lot more potential for finding Martian life.
Better yet, we have a lot more potential for establishing humanity on the red planet. Especially since its currently inhabited by robots.