Yesterday, we told you that NASA's special Mars announcement would be worth staying up for and boy, did they deliver — not only was flowing water all but confirmed, but the prospect of preexisting life on Mars is no longer science fiction. If you missed the live stream, here are the key points you'll need to bluff your through office conversations.
Water microbe picture from Shutterstock
The official announcement: Water (probably) exists on Mars
As many correctly speculated, NASA's announcement was about liquid water on Mars. Data collected by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has provided fresh evidence for recurrent seepage of liquid water along Martian crater walls. Images collected by the HiRISE camera shows shifting flow paths on Martian slopes which appear to be caused by liquid water.
The below video simulates a fly-around look at Mars' Hale Crater where dark streaks advance down slopes during warm seasons. This is the key evidence supporting the presence of water:
In addition, spectral data collected by imaging equipment on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has revealed hydrated salts within the flow paths, which strongly indicates the presence of evaporated brine.
This all points towards the presence of flowing briny water on the planet's surface, possibly from an underground reservoir. This water is thought to be much saltier than Earth's oceans, which would explain how it continues to flow in Mars' freezing temperatures.
The speculative announcement: Martian life might exist
Scientists tend to play down potential discoveries when evidence is scant — it's what makes them supremely rational. Even so, NASA's assorted speakers were surprisingly frank about the possibility of alien life on Mars during last night's announcement. The confirmation of liquid water is a strong indicator that the planet isn't completely dead — at least not at the microbial level.
"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,” John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington said. "This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water — albeit briny — is flowing today on the surface of Mars."
"When we look at Earth, water is an essential ingredient — and everywhere we go where there's liquid water, whether it's deep in the Earth or in the arid regions, we find life," added Jim Green, NASA's director of planetary science. "This is tremendously exciting. We haven't been able to answer the question "does life exist beyond Earth?" But following the water is a critical element of that."
To boldly go...
While the possibility of microbial lifeforms is certainly intriguing, the presence of water could have another profound affect on humanity — in short, it boosts the probability of colonising Mars in our lifetime. Flowing water on the surface of the planet could potentially be used to support astronauts in the "near future". Presently, NASA is looking into the possibility of sending humans to Mars' surface before 2040.
"These observations are giving us a much better view that Mars has resources that are useful to future travellers", explained Grunsfeld. "I think [humans will] be able to live on the surface: the resources are there."
Grunsfeld went on to explain how a human crew could build a greenhouse on Mars and then tap the water from the planet's surface to grow crops; similar to how Matt Damon gets by in the upcoming blockbuster The Martian. It's truly fascinating stuff.
So what happens next? If there is life on the Red Planet, it shouldn't take too long to find — over the next three years, three new spacecraft are slated to land on Mars. This will include the European Space Agency's ExoMars rover, which has been specifically tasked with searching for evidence of life by drilling into the planet's surface. Watch this space! (Or just watch space — the answers are up there, waiting.)
What did you think about NASA's announcement? Could life exists in our solar system beyond the confines of Earth? Share your opinion in the comments!