There are Places Where Salty Water Could Emerge Onto the Surface of Mars

A computer generated view of Mars, with an area including Gale Crater beginning to catch morning light. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The existence of water on Mars is a contentious subject. We know there used to be water on the surface of the planet, though it’s long gone now. We know there’s frozen water underground in the world, and we know there’s water vapour in the air. But life needs liquid water.

Could there be liquid water on Mars?

A new study shows how salty water could emerge from the atmosphere onto Mars’ surface under the right conditions.

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The Scientific Debate Rages on: Is there Water Under Mars’ South Pole?

The South Pole on Mars. Image: NASA.
The South Pole on Mars. Image: NASA.

There’s no surface water on Mars now, but there was a long time ago. If you ask most people interested in Mars, what’s left of it is underground and probably frozen.

But some previous evidence shows there’s a lake of liquid water under the planet’s South Pole Layered Deposits (SPLD). Other evidence refutes it. So what’s going on?

Science, that’s what.

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Ice Peeks out of a Cliffside on Mars

This area, on the western edge of Milankovic Crater on Mars, has a thick deposit of sediment that covers a layer rich in ice. The ice is not obvious unless you look in color. In the red-green-blue images that are close to what the human eye would see, the ice looks bright white, while the surroundings are a rusty red. The ice stands out even more clearly in the infrared-red-blue images where it has a striking bluish-purple tone while the surroundings have a yellowish-grey color. The ice-rich material is most visible when the cliff is oriented east-west and is shielded from the sun as it arcs through the sky to the south. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/UArizona

The HiRISE (High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has captured another beauty. This time the image shows water ice peeking out from a cliffside on Mars. A layer of sediment obscures most of the ice, but fingers of it are visible.

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Mars Was Too Small to Ever be Habitable

An artist's rendition of a Mars with Earth-like surface water. Image source: NASA Earth Observatory/Joshua Stevens; NOAA National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service; NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS; Graphic design by Sean Garcia/Washington University)

Mars and water. Those words can trigger an avalanche of speculation, evidence, hypotheses, and theories. Mars has some water now, but it’s frozen, and most of it’s buried. There’s only a tiny bit of water vapour in the atmosphere. Evidence shows that it was much wetter in the past. In its ancient past, the planet may have had a global ocean. But was it habitable at one time?

A new study says it wasn’t. Mars lost most of its water, and it’s all to do with the planet’s size.

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Dusty Snow on Mars Could be Melting Just Below the Surface

Dust on Mars gets everywhere – including on top of ice deposited during one of Mars’ previous ice ages.  Just how that dust affects the ice is still up for some debate. Adding to that debate, a recent paper by researchers at Arizona State University and the University of Washington has laid out a map between the dust content of a glacier and the brightness of its ice.

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Potentially More Subsurface Lakes Found on Mars

One of the hardest things to reconcile in science is when new data either complicates or refutes previously findings.  It’s even more difficult when those findings were widely publicized and heralded around the community.  But that is how science works – the theories must fit the data.  So when a team from JPL analyzed data from Mars Express about the Martian South Pole, they realized the findings announced in 2018 about subsurface lakes on Mars might have been more fraught than they had originally thought.

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What’s Causing Those Landslides on Mars? Maybe Underground Salt and Melting Ice

Changes in Mar’s geography always attract significant scientific and even public attention.  A hope for signs of liquid water (and therefore life) is likely one of the primary driving forces behind this interest.  One particularly striking changing feature is the Recurring Slope Lineae (RSL) originally found by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Now, scientists at the SETI Institute have a modified theory for where those RSLs might develop – a combination of water ice and salt just under the Martian surface.

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Astronauts Will be Able to Extract Fuel, Air, and Water From Martian Brine

This illustration shows Jezero Crater — the landing site of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover — as it may have looked billions of years go on Mars, when it was a lake. An inlet and outlet are also visible on either side of the lake. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A little over a decade from now, NASA plans to send astronauts to Mars for the first time. This mission will build on decades of robotic exploration, collect samples from the surface, and return them to Earth for analysis. Given the immense distance involved, any operations on the Martian surface will need to be as self-sufficient as possible, which means sourcing whatever they can locally.

This includes using the local water to create oxygen gas, drinking water, and rocket fuel, which represents a challenge considering that any liquid water is likely to be briny. Luckily, a team of researchers from the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University at St. Louis (WUSTL) has created a new type of electrolysis system that can convert briny water into usable products while also being compact and lightweight.

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Mars Might Have Lost its Water Quickly

This artist's concept depicts the early Martian environment (right) – believed to contain liquid water and a thicker atmosphere – versus the cold, dry environment seen at Mars today (left). Image Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Mars is an arid place, and aside from a tiny amount of water vapour in the atmosphere, all water exists as ice. But it wasn’t always this arid. Evidence of the planet’s past wet chapter dots the surface. Paleolakes like Jezero Crater, soon to be explored by NASA’s Perseverance Rover, provide stark evidence of Mars’ ancient past. But what happened to all that water?

It disappeared into space, of course. But when? And how quickly?

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Martian Features Were Carved by Glaciers, not Flowing Rivers

Orbiters are giving us a chance to study the surface of Mars closely, and some of the features that pop to prominence are dry river channels. There are over 10,000 of them. But a new study suggests that glaciers on ancient Mars are responsible for many of them.

According to the study, those glaciers and the water flowing under them are resonsible for carving out some of those riverbeds, rather than free-flowing rivers.

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