Water found on Mars
In the famous words of David Bowie: “Is there life on Mars?” Well… We don’t know yet, but there is water.
On Thursday, the journal Science published five papers from Nasa: one about the discovery of water on Mars, three papers covering the soil analysis, and one study about a volcanic-like rock Nasa’s rover discovered.
Curiosity, Nasa’s rover, hasn’t exactly found a great body of water, but it has found water molecules in the soil. Researchers say that there is so much water in the soil that every cubic foot is potentially holding two pints of water. This means that about 2% of Mars’ ground is made up of the wet stuff.
Not only dean of science at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, but also lead author on the study of this water, Laurie Leshin has said, “We tend to think of Mars as this dry place – to find water fairly easy to get out of the soil at the surface is exciting to me.”
According to Leshin and her team, all it took to get the water was for for Curiosity to collect and sieve soil samples, then deliver it to an on-board oven that heated the dirt to about 835°C. The substances that evaporated most easily were measured as vapours and analysed to find out what was in them. “We have a very sensitive way to sniff [the vapours] and we can detect the water and other things that are released,” said Leshin.
Bearing in mind that scientists already knew that water was on Mars, but thought it only existed as ice underground, Leshin’s excitement is perfectly understandable.
The US is hoping to have actual people on Mars – instead of just rovers – by the 2030s, but right now there are no plans set in stone.
“We now know there should be abundant, easily accessible water on Mars,” said Leshin. “When we send people, they could scoop up the soil from anywhere on the surface, heat it just a bit, and obtain water.”
She went on to say that the soil on Mars “is interesting because it seems to be about the same everywhere you go. If you are a human explorer, this is really good news because you can quite easily extract water from almost anywhere.”
Earlier this year, Curiosity collect rock samples that held a type of clay mineral that can only be formed in water. When the samples were heated, all the chemicals relevant to sustaining life as we know it were present, except for methane and various landscape formations which tells the scientists that Mars once boasted running water.
Nasa’s final paper was the study of a volcanic-type rock found on Mars, dubbed “Jake_M” after Nasa engineer Jake Matijevic, who died last year. The strange stone is a pyramid, presumably eroded and shaped by the Martian wind.
The team investigating Jake_M is led by Professor Ed Stolper from Caltech, Pasadena, who have confirmed that not only have they found more rocks like this one on Mars, but it is also similar to a type of rock found on Earth called a mugearite.
Professor Martin Fisk, part of the team from Caltech, said: “On Earth, we have a pretty good idea how mugearites and rocks like them are formed.” He went on to explain that crystals that occur in magma when water is present settle out of the magma, and whatever doesn’t crystallise turns into a mugearite that makes it way to the surface of the ground.
The researchers discovered calcium sulphate left behind in the rock which means water once ran through it. Because of this, the scientists know there were at least two significant wet phases.
Although the scientists don’t yet know if habitable life existed during those stages, they say there is strong evidence that Mars once had flowing rivers and calm lakes that probably contained microbes.
So far Curiosity hasn’t found enough evidence that life has ever lived on Mars, but it is continuing to analyse the soil, drill into rocks, and help us learn more about our neighbour that is the red planet, Mars.