NASA has an exciting report today: the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has provided them with evidence that water, in liquid form, flows on present-day Mars. Researchers were able to use an imaging spectrometer to find hydrated minerals on slopes where they suspected water could flow. The darkish streaks that appear on the Red Planet have shifted gradually over time, making scientists curious about what caused the movment. As it turns out, the darker patches are actually caused by the flow of water and then fade as they freeze during the planet's cooler times.
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"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," said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water -- albeit briny -- is flowing today on the surface of Mars."
These flowing areas have been called RSL or recurring slope linae and NASA has been suspicious that they were related to liquid water. However, the discovery of hydrated salts on the slopes definitely points to water. The salt acts like the road salts do during the winter, causing the ice and frozen water to melt much more quickly.
"We found the hydrated salts only when the seasonal features were widest, which suggests that either the dark streaks themselves or a process that forms them is the source of the hydration. In either case, the detection of hydrated salts on these slopes means that water plays a vital role in the formation of these streaks," said Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta.
Ojha noticed that these features were forming when he was still an undergrad at the University of Arizona in 2010. He used the images from the MRO's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE).
The salt is in several locations, but is only found when the darker features are relatively wide - when they looked at the same locations and the RSL weren't there, it was because they weren't as large.
Ojha said that the spectral signatures were caused by something known as perchlorates, which is a mixture of magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate and sodium perchlorate. Some of these perchlorates have been known to keep liquids from freezing when it is minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. This isn't the first time they have been seen on Mars. In fact, they were spotted in the 1970s, but they were in a different form.
"The ability of MRO to observe for multiple Mars years with a payload able to see the fine detail of these features has enabled findings such as these: first identifying the puzzling seasonal streaks and now making a big step towards explaining what they are," said Rich Zurek, MRO project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Ojha believes this to be proof that there is definitely water on Mars:
"When most people talk about water on Mars, they're usually talking about ancient water or frozen water," he said. "Now we know there's more to the story. This is the first spectral detection that unambiguously supports our liquid water-formation hypotheses for RSL."
NASA will spend a lot of time in the next few months looking over Mars:
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"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 Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "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."