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Liquid Water on Mars!

This article appeared in the October 16, 2015 edition of the Davis Enterprise.


By Vinita Domier

Special to the Enterprise


On September 28, 2015, NASA announced that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's (MRO) on-board scientific instruments have detected strong evidence of present-day seasonal flowing water on the surface of Mars. This momentous deduction of flowing water on the Red Planet's surface will galvanize the search for origins of life on Mars, as where there is liquid water there is possibility of life.


Since 2010, images taken by MRO’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera have shown darkish streaks appearing in four locations (Horowitz Crater, Hale Crater, Palikir Crater, and Coprates Chasma) on the Martian surface. These ebbing and flowing streaks, known as recurring slope lineae (RSL), are observed flowing downwards from tops of mountainous craters when the Martian surface temperatures exceeds -23ºC, becoming prominent in the Martian summers, and non-existent in the Martian winters.


Spectral analyses of the RSL by MRO’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) have conclusively determined the presence of hydrated salts - specifically magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate, and sodium perchlorate - mixed with the Martian soil. Perchlorate salts have been found in many Martian locations, are highly dissolvable in water, and become hydrated by chemically bonding with water molecules.


One hypothesis explaining the hydration of the perchlorate salts in the RCL on Mars is that they liquefy after absorbing water from the atmospheric water vapor. Another explanation is that warmer temperatures in the summertime melts some of the water ice in the Martian rocks, and the resultant flowing seepage dissolves the salts present in the Martian soil.


The dissolved salts significantly lower the freezing point of the perchlorate brine-water, enabling it to be a liquid on Mars’ surface between -70ºC and +24ºC. In contrast, pure water exists as a liquid on the Earth’s surface between 0ºC and +100ºC, and on Mars’ surface from 0ºC (below which it freezes) to +10ºC (above which it boils away). As the Martian atmosphere is very thin and cold even in the summer season, any water flowing on Mars’ surface has to contain high concentrations of dissolved salts.


The presence of transient liquid water on contemporary Mars has been conclusively surmised from the spectral signatures of hydrated salts detected in the seasonal RSL. No actual flowing water has been observed as of now. The presence of frozen water in Martian polar icecaps and permafrost, and evidence of past flowing water on the surface have been confirmed by previous observations of the Red Planet. This new discovery of seasonal liquid water, albeit highly salty water, flowing on the surface raises the tantalizing prospect that organic life may be present on Mars.


Please join the Davis Astronomy Club on Saturday, October 17, 2015, starting at 7:00pm at the Explorit Science Center (3141 5th Street, Davis). We will discuss the ramifications of the discovery of liquid water on the Red Planet Mars and new scientific revelations about the dwarf planet Pluto, followed by a star party, weather permitting. The Davis Astronomy Club meetings are free and all ages are welcome.



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