Flowing Water on Mars

He just had a Martian meteorite lying around… Photo - Taylor MacPherson

He just had a Martian meteorite lying around… Photo – Taylor MacPherson

Talkin’ Mars with Dr. Martin Beech

Last week, NASA confirmed that liquid water is flowing on the surface of Mars. According to the agency’s official website “researchers detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes where mysterious streaks are seen on the Red Planet. These darkish streaks appear to ebb and flow over time. They darken and appear to flow down steep slopes during warm seasons, and then fade in cooler seasons. They appear in several locations on Mars when temperatures are above minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 Celsius), and disappear at colder times.”

Because we at the Carillon aren’t science majors, we spoke to U of R astronomy professor Dr. Martin Beech, who is.

Dr. Beech studies Martian meteorites at the University of Regina, along with geologist Dr. Ian Coulson.

“This is material blasted from the surface of Mars during an impact,” Dr. Beech informed us. “So either an asteroid or a comet’s hit the surface, and sometimes that material ends up on Earth as a meteorite. In that blasting-off process, they are actually heated at quite high temperatures, and they trap in little glass beads, some of the [Martian] atmosphere.”

Then Dr. Beech brought out an actual piece of a meteorite, which is when the Carillon knew this was the real deal.

“The story has been running for the best part of ten years,” Dr. Beech said about the recent announcement. “When NASA announced that they were going to have this press conference about Mars, the immediate thought in my mind was that perhaps they found that clear evidence of water… they know that they’re going to be quoted by everybody, so they want to make sure that they’re not overstating the data.”

When asked if we could drink the newly discovered water, Dr. Beech responded “not directly. The water is being described as a brine, so a very high salt and mineral content to it. It would probably taste horrible, I’m sure… I guess the key thing here is that it’s another indicator that there are reservoirs of water close to the surface of Mars. So that, for exploration purposes, is very exciting and useful… It’s not just at the polar regions, this water. There are relatively straightforward means by which you could chemically process that water out. Not too much different to the processes that are used on the International Space Station where they recycle water, and even urine as well. In principle, pure water can be filtered out of these fluids.”

Besides drinking water, liquid water from the Martian surface could also be used for energy. “If you want to run experiments and habitats on Mars, solar power is certainly an option, but [because Mars is further from the Sun than Earth] you get less energy per area with solar cells. You could get hydrogen [from this water] and use it as a fuel.”

Part of what makes this discovery so exciting is that it increases the chance of finding life on Mars.

According to Dr. Beech, “the great mantra of this idea of looking for life elsewhere in the Solar System has been ‘follow the water’ because on Earth it’s the key thing. If you’ve got water, then life seems to be able to thrive in those conditions. On Earth, we have what we call extremophiles, which are a sort of bacteria that can thrive in boiling water, water with very high salt concentrations, and what have you. So in principle, if you’ve got this water on Mars, then we know bacteria can survive under those sorts of conditions. So [this discovery] does bolster the long-running idea that Mars may well not only have harboured life in the distant past, but also into the future as well.”

Discussing the idea of a mission to one of the sites of flowing water, Dr. Beech told the Carillon that the sites where flowing water had been discovered were “not the easiest terrain to land in… But as time goes by, the missions have gotten much more successful, so that technology and the experience of landing things [on Mars] is available, so presumably one of these regions is a prime target. Scoop some soil up [and] do appropriate chemical tests to see if there’s bacterial life, or evidence of bacterial life, and so on. I think the only thing that runs against it is cost.”

For more information, visit www.nasa.gov.

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