Friday, July 11, 2014

How Liquid Water Could Exist on Mars


In the hunt for life on Mars, NASA’s maxim has always been to follow the water. We haven’t yet found liquid water on Mars, but a new study from a team at the University of Michigan has shown how small amounts of liquid water could exist on the Red Planet despite its below-freezing temperatures. The key ingredient is salt.

Though we’ve never found liquid water flowing on the Martian surface, we have found evidence of such

Weathered rocks and areas suggest ancient rivers, photographs show evidence of gullies flowing down crater rims, and instruments on landers and rovers have found the right chemical signatures of water. Most compelling is the evidence of water in self-portraits from NASA’s Phoenix lander.

But Mars is cold, with an average surface temperature of about -80 degrees Fahrenheit (-60 degrees C). Could liquid water exist on a planet this cold? That’s what the team of researchers at the University of Michigan is answering, by looking at the salt that exists on the planet. Similar to how road salt melts ice on sidewalks in the winter, a type of salt present in Martian soil readily melts ice on contact.

In 2008, Nilton Renno, a professor of atmospheric, oceanic, and space sciences at the University of Michigan, was the first to notice strange globules in photos NASA’s Phoenix lander sent back. As the lander continued sending pictures home, the globules remained, seeming to grow and coalesce.

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