Water Found on Mars: NASA

9-28-15 Mars RSL
These dark, narrow, 100-meter-long streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars are thought to have been formed by contemporary flowing water. Recently, planetary scientists detected hydrated salts on these slopes at the Hale crater, corroborating their original hypothesis that the streaks are formed by liquid water. NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

New research seems to confirm the presence of contemporary liquid water on the surface of Mars, NASA announced at a highly anticipated news briefing Monday. "The discovery we're going to talk about today is exciting because it suggests that it would be possible for there to be life on Mars today," John Grunsfeld, an astronaut and associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said at the briefing.

"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," Grunsfeld says in a NASA press release. "This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water—albeit briny—is flowing today on the surface of Mars."

His colleague Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters, added at the briefing that "Mars is not the dry arid planet that we thought of in the past. Today we are going to announce that in certain circumstances, there is liquid water on Mars."

Monday's announcement comes from new findings about Mars surface features called recurring slope lineae. These are dark streaks that form in late spring, grow in summer and then disappear by fall, according to Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters. Though they were first observed in 2010, scientists "have been unable to explain the waxing and waning of streaks," Meyer said. They guessed water might be an agent in forming the RSL, Meyer said, but "there has been no evidence of water, until now."

In a paper published Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience, scientists reported evidence of hydrated salts on the slopes of RSL in four different locations, using spectroscopy data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Lujendra Ojha, a Ph.D. candidate in planetary science at the Georgia Institute of Technology and lead author on the paper, explained during the briefing that the salts were found only when the RSL streaks were largest, indicating that source of the molecular water he and his colleagues observed was tied into the RSL themselves or to the process of creating them.

"In either case, the detection of hydrated salts on these slopes means that water plays a vital role in the formation of these streaks," Ojha says in NASA's press release. Alfred S. McEwen, principal investigator for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment at the University of Arizona in Tucson and one of eight co-authors (including Ojha) of the Natural Geoscience paper, told The New York Times, "That's a direct detection of water in the form of hydration of salts. There pretty much has to have been liquid water recently present to produce the hydrated salt," with "recently" meaning "days, something of that order."

Ojha and his colleagues believe that the salts in question are perchlorates—most likely a mix of magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate and sodium perchlorate—that have the ability to increase water's stability on the Mars surface. Whereas pure water would freeze at 0 degrees Celsius and begin to boil at only 10 degrees Celsius on the surface of Mars, perchlorate-brine would stay in liquid form until it dropped to -70 degrees Celsius or rose to 24 degrees Celsius, explained another paper co-author, Mary Beth Wilhelm of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, and the Georgia Institute of Technology, at the news briefing.

In terms of broader implications, Wilhelm pointed to water as an essential ingredient for life and these new findings as potential evidence for more habitable conditions on the planet than previously thought. In addition, she says, "water may be an important resource for future human explorers and inhabitants of Mars and may decrease cost and increase resilience of human activity on the red planet."

Monday's announcement comes just a few days before the release of The Martian, a film starring Matt Damon and based on Andy Weir's book of the same name about an astronaut who is accidentally left for dead while on a mission to Mars and must figure out how to survive on the planet. Both the film and the major scientific finding come in the midst of NASA's "Journey to Mars" program, which aims to send humans to Mars by the 2030s.

"It seems that the more we study Mars," Meyer was quoted as saying, "the more we learn how life could be supported and where there are resources to support life in the future."