More Researchers Say Liquid Water Present on Mars Now

by Nancy Atkinson on May 26, 2009

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Blobs of something "growing" on the Phoenix lander's legs.
Finding perchlorates on Mars was not only surprising for the Phoenix lander science team, it also has created a bit of a rift among the researchers. In March, Ian reported on one scientist who used strictly photographic evidence to say that blobs appearing on the lander’s legs were actually water. Other scientists, however, including principal investigator Peter Smith were dubious about the “water on Mars now” claims. But now, a group of researchers at the University of Arkansas say they have now demonstrated a potential stable liquid on present-day Mars in the immediate environment of the lander.

The salts formed from perchlorates discovered at the Phoenix landing site act as “anti-freeze” and have the potential to be found in a liquid solution under the temperature and pressure conditions on present-day Mars, say professor Vincent F. Chevrier and graduate students Jennifer Hanley and Travis S. Altheide. Their research is published in the current issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

“Under real, observed Martian conditions, you can have a stable liquid,” said Chevrier.

The researchers studied the properties of sodium and magnesium perchlorates, salts detected by the Phoenix lander, under the temperature, pressure and humidity conditions found at the landing site. The discovery of perchlorates on Mars by the Phoenix mission surprised scientists – the compounds are rare on Earth, found mostly in extremely arid environments such as the Atacama Desert in Chile.

This image was taken by the Phoenix land on the 97th day of the mission.  Credit: NASA/JPL

This image was taken by the Phoenix land on the 97th day of the mission. Credit: NASA/JPL



The scientists studied the properties of these salts at varying temperatures using the Andromeda Chamber in the W.M. Keck Laboratory for Space Simulation – a chamber that can imitate the pressure and atmospheric conditions found on Mars. They also performed thermodynamic calculations to determine the state of salt and water combinations on the Martian surface and to see if there was any potential for liquid to be found.

The extreme temperatures found on Mars typically lead to either crystallization or evaporation of water, making it difficult to imagine that water could be found in liquid form. However, salts have been shown to lower the freezing point of water – which is why street crews use salt on the roads to melt ice, Hanley said. Some salts, like perchlorates, lower the freezing point substantially. It turns out that the temperature for the liquid phase of magnesium perchlorate – 206 degrees Kelvin – is a temperature found on Mars at the Phoenix landing site. Based on temperature findings from the Phoenix lander, conditions would allow this perchlorate solution to be present in liquid form for a few hours each day during the summer.

“The window for liquid is very small,” Hanley said. Nevertheless, this finding further supports the possibility of finding life on Mars.

“You don’t necessarily need to have a lot of water to have life,” Chevrier said. “But you need liquid water at some point.”

Source: University of Arkansas

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

HelloBozos May 26, 2009 at 8:16 AM

A good survivalist could collect that water Easy….could get more if Mars like earth an the waters under the dirt

ioresult May 26, 2009 at 11:02 AM

Perchlorates can also be used as a component for solid rocket fuel. That could help a sample return mission…

Jon Hanford May 26, 2009 at 11:46 AM

I would think that a natural followup experiment would be to see if any Earth organisms can be found that can thrive in this solution (of water AND perchlorates) at the temperatures and pressures found on the Martian surface. Finding certain extremophiles here on Earth that can tolerate this aqueous salt solution at Martian temperatures and pressures would go a long way to bolster theories that life on Mars is possible.

wayno@oz May 26, 2009 at 6:42 PM

The answer to life on mars will be found when humans actually explore in person. Until then, rovers and probes can only tell us what we already know. Conditions for life where once ideal on Mars but they no longer exist. That is not to say that life no longer exist there. With the discovery of extremophile life here on Earth it would be a sure bet to say that, If life did exist on Mars at one stage in the past, even microbial, it would continue to eek out an existence where ever possible. In the end though, even if microbial life is found, will that stop humans from colonizing the planet? I feel that it may and that will be the end of humanity because, as Hawking said, we are too precious to be confined to one planet. It only takes one asteriod/comet, powerful flu virus(swine flu?) or a retard with nuclear weapo(….hang on….scratch that….we just survived 8 years in that condition…..) to wipe us out. The Tunguska event is a perfect example of what can happen to a planet unexpectedly. Forgot the search for life, and start researching ideas on re-heating Mars core and getting the dynamo going again. With a magnetic field we could be living on mars in years, growing crops and mining minerals to further our expansion to the stars.

vino May 26, 2009 at 8:48 PM

The first question that comes to my mind is that, if the liquid water is present only for a few hours everyday, how can any lifeform, even the very basic like a chain of amino acids form? And even if they can be brought by some meteorites, i thought for the formation of life you need sustained conditions….I am too confused to say that life can form in these conditions….But who knows….Nature has suprised us in many forms….

wayno@oz May 26, 2009 at 11:28 PM

Vino, your are correct in wondering how life could form in these weird conditions, and i suspect that it doesnt, but the finding that liquid water can be present in today’s climate and conditions means that it could be more abundant in other area’s. It may be that just below the surface of a crater on Mars water lies in a liquid form and regardless of how acidic or alkaline it is, if Mars once had microbial life it would surely be living in these area’s. These “craters of life” would be the sustained enviromental conditions needed for life to do what it does best, survive. Humans can only guess what life needs to survive by looking at a total example of 1, that being our planet! If we use Earth as an example, life is abundant, hardy and constantly evolving. It may be that Mars life is now evolved to life under the surface, away from the radiation and cold or, the one option no-one wants to think about – Life never evolved on Mars because it never reached stable conditions and the climate we see today is as stable as it is ever going to get.

Torbjorn Larsson OM May 27, 2009 at 12:57 AM

“The window for liquid is very small,”

I’m sure it is, in general. But there are or have been active geology or biology on Mars (methane sources), which either of them would mean liquids by way of heat sources.

Also, I seem to remember that there was earlier speculation of brines, which concluded that Valles Marineris specific conditions opens up the window. And VM is not an insignificant feature. :-o

“supports the possibility of finding life on Mars”

Certainly. To touch on other comments here:

Early Mars had a different, some think benign climate. And we know from Earth that life get started very easily and quickly. Some theorists suspects that a mere 10 ky was an upper bound to form the first cells.

Extremophiles is another thing entirely. The most hardiest probably developed late on Earth; last year a massive genome study supported Cavalier-Smith which places archaea as late sisters to eukaryota. This doesn’t mean that an extreme climate wouldn’t force extremophiles earlier, but one can certainly wonder if it is very difficult to evolve the hardiest cells since Earth seem to have had extreme climates globally or locally all its history. (Sort of a duh statement really, since anything deviating from a tropically benign zone would be considered extreme.)

I’m fairly certain that extremophiles would survive under the conditions a few centimeters under the UV sterilized surface though. Organisms can AFAIU live and procreate in brines, at the PH found by Phoenix, and on perchlorates. They have IIRC been tested to survive if not procreate at the UV/atmosphere conditions on Mars if sheltered by a few cm of soil. Putting all conditions together they would probably be difficult for Earth organisms, no transpermia likely, but given the opportunity to adapt gradually they could eventually make it.

“The answer to life on mars will be found when humans actually explore in person.”

Why? All it would take is to find traces of recent or fossil metabolism (light carbon fractionation ratios, for example) in the discovered methane releases, or in the ExoMars experiment that will look for organics with wet chemistry (so not destroyed by heating with perchlorates, as recently found when checking the Phoenix TEGA analysis).

Torbjorn Larsson OM May 27, 2009 at 1:28 AM

Isn’t it interesting that such a recent find of perchlorates touches on the possibilities of Mars technologies/habitability? The comments reflects that plenty.

In my view it is a disaster as regards human habitability. If Mars dust was seen as a problem earlier, it certainly is a much more difficult stumble block now.

Phoenix found that the dust is very clingy when wet. (That could help also help catching it of course.) And AFAIU lethally poisonous to Earth organisms with a central nervous system by way of a high perchlorate content that we haven’t evolved to handle.

With any luck, it is regional.

“That could help a sample return mission…”

I thought so too! OTOH I just read a blog on a study of Mars atmosphere rocket fuel production. All it takes is energy, ~ 1.5 year of production time, and a 300 kg of hardware (in 1975, IIRC) for a simple CO/O2 plant for sample return.

The cute thing with that proposal was powering the sampling rover with the same fuel by way of thermogeneration power elements while waiting for the rocket fuel load. No need for those pesky dust covered solar panels, if you accepted the restriction of having to return for fueling once in a while. (Unless you use solar power for the fuel plant instead of the proposed RTG.)

Torbjorn Larsson OM May 27, 2009 at 1:58 AM

“thermogeneration power elements”

Oh, duh! Sorry to put up a third comment after two long ones, but I of all people shouldn’t do this mistake even in english. Guess the original blog post I read was fuzzy on technique so I took it out of memory instead of reflecting on what I wrote.

I mean thermoelectric power elements, of course, or thermocouples for short.

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