Ev­i­dence of liq­uid wa­ter on Mars boosts the quest for ex­trater­res­trial life


The search for ex­trater­res­trial life just got a big boost from NASA’s stun­ning an­nounce­ment that it now has its strong­est ev­i­dence yet of liq­uid wa­ter on Mars.

So did the prospects for hu­man ex­plo­ration of the red planet be­cause the pres­ence of flow­ing wa­ter could help sus­tain fu­ture manned mis­sions, NASA sci­en­tists say.

“We now have great op­por­tu­ni­ties to be on the right lo­ca­tions on Mars to fully in­ves­ti­gate the ex­is­tence of life on Mars,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s as­so­ciate ad­min­is­tra­tor for science mis­sions.

The ev­i­dence ad­vanced by the space agency Mon­day cen­ters on some un­usual streaks found on steep slopes on the Mar­tian sur­face.

A team of ex­perts con­cluded in a pa­per pub­lished in the jour­nal Na­ture Geo­science that wa­ter played a vi­tal role in the for­ma­tion of the lines be­cause of the pres­ence of hy­drated salt min­er­als, which con­tain wa­ter mol­e­cules.

NASA said the find­ings “pro­vide the strong­est ev­i­dence yet that liq­uid wa­ter flows in­ter­mit­tently on present-day Mars.”

“The ex­cit­ing thing about this an­nounce­ment is the con­fir­ma­tion of what we sus­pected — that this is due to some kind of wa­ter fea­ture,” Grunsfeld said.

Some day, he said, a manned mis­sion will go to Mars and re­trieve sam­ples from the area where the streaks were found by NASA’s Mars Re­con­nais­sance Or­biter.

The for­mer as­tro­naut said he ex­pected NASA’s engi­neers and sci­en­tists in the mean­time will use their in­ge­nu­ity to come up with vi­able ex­per­i­ments to de­tect the pres­ence of life.

“We have the ca­pa­bil­ity to go there, ask these ques­tions of life on Mars and an­swer it,” said Jim Green, NASA’s di­rec­tor of plan­e­tary science. “Not an ab­stract ques­tion but a con­crete one.”

Even be­fore Mon­day’s an­nounce­ment, sci­en­tists be­lieved chances were great that mi­cro­bial life forms ex­ist be­low the Mar­tian sur­face, pos­si­bly in subter­ranean aquifers.

“To me the ex­is­tence of mi­cro­bial life in the sub­sur­face of Mars has been very high,” said Al­fred McEwen, a Univer­sity of Ari­zona re­searcher who is the prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor for the High Res­o­lu­tion Imag­ing Science Experiment (HiRise), the pow­er­ful cam­era on­board the Mars Re­con­nais­sance Or­biter.

Life forms prob­a­bly could only sur­vive be­low ground be­cause the sur­face of Mars is so in­hos­pitable, bom­barded as it is by ul­tra­vi­o­let rays from the sun that would de­stroy all life as we know it, say ex­perts, who note that Mars’ thin at­mos­phere would of­fer lit­tle pro­tec­tion.

Michael Meyer, the lead sci­en­tist for NASA’s Mars ex­plo­ration pro­gram, em­pha­sized that the source of the wa­ter that ap­par­ently caused the streaks on Mars’s sur­face is not known.

The streaks ap­pear dur­ing pe­ri­ods that are less cold and then dis­ap­pear again when tem­per­a­tures plunge, a phe­nom­e­non that was first ob­served in 2011.

The wa­ter could come from be­low the sur­face, so it is “im­per­a­tive” to find other, more ac­ces­si­ble places on the planet where the same phe­nom­e­non oc­curs and to look there for subter­ranean sources of wa­ter, Meyer said.

“We only sus­pect those places ex­ist and we have some kind of sci­en­tific ev­i­dence that they do,” Grunsfeld said. “That is go­ing to be a very ex­cit­ing area of ex­plo­ration in the fu­ture.”

If there is wa­ter on Mars in suf­fi­cient quan­tity then it would be pos­si­ble to grow plants in in­flat­able green­houses, he pre­dicted.

Since plants take in car­bon diox­ide, which is plen­ti­ful in Mars, and put out oxy­gen, they could serve to pro­duce food while at the same time cre­at­ing breath­able en­vi­ron­ments, he said.

NASA of­fi­cials are con­fi­dent that over the next five years they can un­lock some of the planet’s se­crets and thereby help to set the stage for fu­ture manned mis­sions to Mars.

In March 2016, NASA will launch a Mars lan­der called In­Sight, which for the first time will be able to peer be­low the Mar­tian sur­face.

The Euro­pean Space Agency, as part of its Ex­oMars pro­gram, plans to launch a Mars or­biter in 2016, fol­lowed by a ro­bot and ex­plo­ration plat­form on the planet’s sur­face two years later, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Rus­sia.

The ob­jec­tive of these mis­sions is to de­tect meth­ane and other signs of bi­o­log­i­cal ac­tiv­ity.

Fi­nally, in 2020, the United States will send a new ro­botic rover sim­i­lar to but more so­phis­ti­cated than Cu­rios­ity to take Mar­tian soil sam­ples and bring them back to Earth.

The U.S. space agency en­vis­ages its first manned mis­sion to Mars in the 2030s, if not sooner.


This file hand­out pho­to­graph re­ceived from the In­dian Space Re­search Or­gan­i­sa­tion (ISRO) on Sept. 30, 2014 shows the planet Mars in an im­age taken by the ISRO Mars Or­biter Mis­sion space­craft. Sci­en­tists on Mon­day, Sept. 28 an­nounced “the strong­est ev­i­dence yet” of liq­uid wa­ter on Mars, rais­ing the dis­tant prospect of mi­cro­scopic life on the red planet.

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