NASA Space Place – How We Know Mars Has Liquid Water On Its Surface

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. NASA Space Place has been providing general audience articles for quite some time that are freely available for download and republishing. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting in October, 2015.

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

2013february2_spaceplaceOf all the planets in the solar system other than our own, Mars is the one place with the most Earth-like past. Geological features on the surface such as dried up riverbeds, sedimentary patterns, mineral spherules nicknamed “blueberries,” and evidence of liquid-based erosion all tell the same story: that of a wet, watery past. But although we’ve found plenty of evidence for molecular water on Mars in the solid (ice) and gaseous (vapor) states, including in icecaps, clouds and subsurface ices exposed (and sublimated) by digging, that in no way meant there’d be water in its liquid phase today.

Sure, water flowed on the surface of Mars during the first billion years of the solar system, perhaps producing an ocean a mile deep, though the ocean presence is still much debated. Given that life on Earth took hold well within that time, it’s conceivable that Mars was once a rich, living planet as well. But unlike Earth, Mars is small: small enough that its interior cooled and lost its protective magnetic field, enabling the sun’s solar wind to strip its atmosphere away. Without a significant atmosphere, the liquid phase of water became a virtual impossibility, and Mars became the arid world we know it to be today.

But certain ions—potassium, calcium, sodium, magnesium, chloride and fluoride, among others—get left behind when the liquid water disappears, leaving a “salt” residue of mineral salts (that may include table salt, sodium chloride) on the surface. While pure liquid water may not persist at standard Martian pressures and temperatures, extremely salty, briny water can indeed stay in a liquid state for extended periods under the conditions on the Red Planet. It’s more of a “sandy crust” like you’d experience on the shore when the tide goes out than the flowing waters we’re used to in rivers on Earth, but it means that under the right temperature conditions, liquid water does exist on Mars today, at least in small amounts.

The measured presence and concentration of these salts, found in the dark streaks that come and go on steep crater walls, combined with our knowledge of how water behaves under certain physical and chemical conditions and the observations of changing features on the Martian surface supports the idea that this is the action of liquid water. Short of taking a sample and analyzing it in situ on Mars, this is the best current evidence we have for liquid water on our red neighbor. Next up? Finding out if there are any single-celled organisms hardy enough to survive and thrive under those conditions, possibly even native to Mars itself!

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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Caption: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona, of a newly-formed gully on the Martian surface (L) and of the series of gullies where the salt deposits were found (R).

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