NASA announced today that Mars contains both frozen and liquid water. This amazing discovery upends the long-held belief that Mars was a completely arid, desert-like planet. The finding also fuels the amazing possibility that life may have at one time thrived on Mars or could possibly even exist today. The finding represents a potential breakthrough in both the search for life beyond Earth and human hopes to one day travel there.
“We now know Mars was once a planet very much like earth with warm, salty seas and fresh water lakes,” Jim Green, planetary science director at NASA, said at a news conference. “But something has happened to Mars, its lost its water.”
“The existence of liquid water, even if it is super salty briny water, gives the possibility that if there’s life on Mars, that we have a way to describe how it might survive,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA.
NASA researchers using an imager aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter confirmed the watery flows by looking at light waves returned from seasonal dark streaks on the surface, long suspected to be associated with liquid water.
It remains unclear where the water comes from. Theories include deliquescence, melting subsurface ice or even a liquid-water aquifer that feeds the process. Discovering what precisely is causing the phenomenon is a mystery for the next round of investigations, said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program.
Nor is it the only indication that Mars could have once – or may still – host life. The Mars Curiosity rover has detected methane on the surface of Mars, as well as other chemical signatures suggesting the possibility of past or present life. Researcher Mary Beth Wilhelm said the results suggest “more habitable conditions on the near surface of Mars than previously thought.”
Alfred McEwen, who heads up NASA’s HiRISE high-resolution camera aboard the Mars orbiter, said he’s fairly confident life will one day be found on Mars. “It’s very likely I think that there’s life somewhere in the crust of Mars, microbes,” he said.
Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA, said the discovery announced today puts NASA in a perfect position to look for that life. “We haven’t been able to answer the question, ‘Does life exist beyond Earth?’ ” Green said. “But following the water is a critical element of that. We now have, I think, a great opportunity to be in the right locations on Mars to thoroughly investigate that.”