‘Briny water’ evidence found on Mars

2015-10-01 06:00

SCIENTISTS have found the first evidence that briny ­water may flow on the surface of Mars during the planet’s summer months, a paper published yesterday showed.

Although the source and the ­chemistry of the water is unknown, the discovery could affect thinking about whether the planet that is most like Earth in the solar system could support present-day microbial life.

“It suggests that it would be possible for life to be on Mars today,” John Grunsfeld, Nasa’s associate administrator for science, told reporters.

“Mars is not the dry, arid planet that we thought of in the past. Under certain circumstances, liquid water has been found on Mars,” said Jim Green, the agency’s director of planetary science.

Scientists developed a new ­technique to analyse chemical maps of the Martian surface obtained by Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter ­spacecraft.

They found telltale fingerprints of salts that form only in the presence of water in narrow channels cut into cliff walls throughout the planet’s ­equatorial region.

The streaks, first reported in 2011, ­appear during the warm summer months on Mars, then vanish when the temperatures drop.

Scientists suspected the streaks, known as recurring slope lineae, or RSL, were cut by flowing water, but had previously been unable to make the measurements.

“I thought there was no hope,” ­Lujendra Ojha, a graduate student at Georgia Institute of Technology and lead author of a paper in this week’s issue of the journal Nature Geoscience, told Reuters.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter makes its measurements during the hottest part of the Martian day, so scientists believed any traces of water, or ­fingerprints from hydrated minerals, would have evaporated.

But Ojha and colleagues created a computer program that could ­scrutinise individual pixels. That data was then correlated with high-resolution images of the streaks. Scientists concentrated on the widest streaks and came up with a 100% match between their locations and detections of ­hydrated salts.

“We’re not claiming that we found … evidence of liquid water. We found hydrated salts,” Ojha said.

Still, that was enough for Nasa, which declared a “Mars mystery solved”, in a press advisory.

The discovery “confirms that water is playing a role in these features”, ­added Alfred McEwen, a planetary scientist with Arizona State University. The prospect of liquid water raises the intriguing prospect that Mars, which is presumed to be a cold and dead planet, could support life ­today. - Reuters

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