NASA strikes water on Mars

On Sept. 28, NASA released a statement confirming findings that indicate there is flowing water on Mars. “Any time astronomers start to see water we get excited about life,” said Olivet astronomy and physical sciences professor Dr. Stephen Case about the newly discovered water on Mars. “As far as we know, everything we know about life on the Earth is that water is a prerequisite.”

These findings are the strongest evidence that liquid water is still present on Mars. “There were these features, or these sorts of stains that would show up on the Martian slopes and they would change over time, get bigger and disappear with seasonal fluctuations. The idea that maybe this was water seeping up, a sort of subsurface water. Data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showed that it was consistent with briny or salty water,” Case said.

NASA released that their scientists have used spectroscopic instruments on the orbiter to gather data on the composition of these Martian features since 2006.

“Going back decades, just from telescope observations there were features on Mars that suggested materials had been transported by fluid, which the immediate thing you jump to is water,” Olivet professor of geological sciences Dr. Carrigan said. “[Mars] has long been seen as a potential planet that may have had water in the past.”

Olivet sophomore Joseph Gosnell received the Pence-Boyce research grant last summer to work with the same spectroscopic technology that is used on the orbiter. Spectroscopy is the process of shining light at a sample to observe how much light is absorbed to determine the chemical makeup of that sample.

Gosnell described the lab machinery as very controlled and accurate, but casted a few doubts on the orbiter’s findings. “Any attempts at collecting spectra [from Mars] has to come from reflected light in an open environment which means the testing may have been thrown off by stray light from something else,” Gosnell said. “Basically, the spectra [NASA] collected from the water on Mars only lets [NASA] guess that’s it’s water, but it’s possible that it is another compound that has similar photochemistry to water. [NASA] won’t know for sure until [they] can get a sample of the water and run it through a more controlled and accurate machine. That doesn’t mean it isn’t water, because in all likelihood it is based on the data, but further testing in the future might show otherwise.”

For the past decade, rovers and orbiters have been observing the formations on Mars more in depth. Until this point the Curiosity Rover has been the most abundant source of information on the present state of the planet.

“The goal of the Curiosity [Rover] mission was to determine if it was possible for life to have existed on Mars,” Carrigan said. With the discovery of surface water the possibility of an ecosystem being able to support life is at an all-time high.

While the prospect of finding present-day water on Mars is exciting, NASA has not released what it hopes the next steps of confirming these findings will be.

“The only problem with studying anything like this more closely is that now if this could even conceivably be a sign of the presence of life on Mars, if there is even a possibility of that, we want to be really, really careful not to contaminate it,” Case said. “So anything we send would have to be completely sterilized so that we’re not contaminating anything ourselves that could be a possible biosphere. I’m not exactly sure what steps NASA will look into taking next.”

Erica Browning

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