Mars water find boosts quest for extra-terrestrial life

L-R: John Grunsfeld, associate administrator NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Jim Green, director of planetary science at NAS
L-R: John Grunsfeld, associate administrator NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters and Michael Meyer, lead scientist for Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters, on September 28, 2015
The search for extra-terrestrial 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.

Viable experiments

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.

An image made available by NASA on September 27, 2015, shows dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks called recurring slope lineae
An image made available by NASA on September 27, 2015, shows dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars, inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water

"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.

Growing plants

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."

Summary of the main points announced about the discovery of water on Mars
Summary of the main points announced about the discovery of water on Mars

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

Explore further

There is water on Mars, but what does this mean for life?

Journal information: Nature Geoscience

© 2015 AFP

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Sep 29, 2015
The streaks appear during periods that are less cold and then disappear again when temperatures plunge, a phenomenon that was first observed in 2011.

Around that time, using the phase diagram of water combined with known data about maximum surface temperatures of Mars, and the Mean atmospheric pressure on Mars, I drew some conclusions.

I discovered from just cross-referencing these data and known scientific constants that under certain conditions, such as a local high pressure dome, it was in fact theoretically possible for liquid water to form on the Leeward side of a hill or mountain range.

It has to do with atmospheric variation, as the surface pressure is not the same everywhere all the time, just like on Earth. In addition you need a reservoir of water from "somewhere" be it a glacier on the surface or some sort of sub-surface aquifer or spring, and all of these ingredients need to come together at the same place and time.

It is possible.

Sep 29, 2015
I don't know what the ratios are for the ice content of Mars' Glaciers, i.e. how much of the ice cape is water-ice and how much is CO2-ice, but I have actually figured out a way to thaw the ice caps on Mars and start a weak greenhouse effect without doing the usually suggested "catastrophic impact" things and without doing something stupid like nukes (wouldn't work anyway).

What you do is use solar panels. They are black, they convert about 10 to 15% of Sunlight to Electricity which an be used for human life support and industry, and the rest of the energy which hits the black surface could be leached off into the ice pack, which would melt water-ice and sublimate CO2-ice, producing a weak atmosphere and a hydrosphere.

Admittedly, it would take thousands of square miles of solar panels to produce enough net forcing to actually free up the CO2, but this scheme could produce a full atmosphere over humanly relevant time scales...perhaps centuries instead of millennia.

Sep 29, 2015
Also, both liquid water and water-ice are useful to industry as coolant since the atmosphere is so thin. It would be useful for a mining operation to have your heat sinks from heavy equipment transport their waste heat into the ice pack, melting the ice and releasing both water and CO2 to replenish the atmosphere and biosphere.

Mars has a lot of very ancient, untouched meteor craters, and is core mass is about 1/9 that of Earth, which means it's crust hasn't been over-turned or differentiated nearly as much as Earth's crust. Therefore I would expect to find a very high ratio of valuable metals in ores and even partially smelted deposits in some of the meteor craters. This would include both tradional building materials as well as precious metals.

You could make shelters from framework of iron covered in vitrified dirt bricks (i.e. dirty glass,) making a dome or igloo type structure save from radiation. At 1/3rd gravity it would easily self support.

Sep 29, 2015
Now on the inside of this igloo-like radiation proof shell, you have some sort of air-tight inflatable living quarters (early on) evolving into an air-tight living quarters made from materials like Aluminum insulated with other materials. I considered double and triple-walled structures with vacuum insulation in order to maximize the ability to control climate in the living quarters.

I considered passive fire control measures, as you cannot rely on computers in the event of an electrical fire. You need passive control much like what exists in Hospitals, and now that we know a way to keep liquid water available (using waste heat from solar panels) we could store liquid water for a sprinkler system (for compartments where it's appropriate such as hydroponics or places where there isn't a lot of electronics). For rooms which have heavy electronics, you flood the room with pressurized CO2 and it will extinguish a fire immediately, then you pump the CO2 back out of the room.

Sep 29, 2015
The so-called "Mars One" colony project has not considered the amount of work which needs to be designed into fail safes against fire accidents and other electrical problems. I have worked on the problem off and on and developed triple-redundant fire protection, and triple-redundant environmental breach protection....which is the bare minimum that I would live in personally if I were to journey to the surface of present-day Mars.

The advantage of my thaw theory is that in the short term it provides needs to the colony, and in the long term it actually has a decent chance of Terra-forming the planet in a positive way.

Sep 29, 2015
Well, I'm surprised more people haven't at least taken interest in this article, at least had their imaginations stirred a little by this as i provides additional opportunity, potentially, to both science and industry in the future.

Now the next major Mars rover mission needs to be designed to do wet chemistry experiments, and a lot of new reconassaince and potentially a new orbiter mission needs to be designed to determine the best location for the next Rover mission to land, given these new initial discoveries....what days or weeks of the year do the out-flowings of water most likely happen. Is it safe to the science instruments to be exposed to this environment during the flowing water? How powerful are the streams when they happen? How do you design the rover to resist potential corrosion and electronic malfunction if exposed to and out-burst of briney water? Yet it still must be very light, very flexible and manueverable, reliable, hopefully long-lived to find life 2.0.

Sep 29, 2015
If there is liquid water on Mars, no one—not even NASA—can get anywhere near it

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