NASA scientists have officially confirmed that the dark rivulets and deep valleys captured in images of Mars may actually be tracks of salt water. The discovery has enormous potential both for questions it may answer about life forms that could exist on the planet, as well as what it means for future manned missions to Mars.
The water "may be an important resource for future human explorers and inhabitants of Mars, and decrease the cost and increase the resilience of human activity on the Red Planet," discovery team member Mary Beth Wilhelm, of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, said during a news conference announcing the discovery.
The discovery will no doubt boost ticket sales for the sci-fi adventure film “The Martian,” which zooms into theaters this Friday. It follows the story of an astronaut (played by Matt Damon) who is stranded on Mars and forced to survive there while awaiting rescue.
Google has also joined in on the fun, as the company put up a Google doodle on its homepage featuring a cartoon version of the Red Planet drinking a cup of water.
According to estimates, the amount of water involved in the formation of the known streaks that dot Mars’s surface could fill 40 Olympic-size swimming pools.
"That sounds like a lot if it's all in one place. But that's dispersed over a very wide area," Alfred McEwen, a researcher at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, told The Christian Science Monitor. "So what we're dealing with is thin layers of wet soil."
The formations, a mixture of hydrated salt and brine, appear during warm months but disappear when it gets colder, which caused the initial speculation that water was involved in their formation. That hypothesis has now been confirmed, thanks to images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, or MRO.
The MRO has been looking for evidence of water on Mars since 2005, but the new images, showing narrow streaks flowing downhill, are the strongest indication yet that water does, indeed, exist on Mars. It is not yet known where, exactly, Mars’s water comes from, but researchers are hoping to put together that piece of the puzzle next. That discovery could yield some clues as to what life – if any – could exist on the Red Planet.
“Considering how many millions and millions of years we had standing and running water on that planet, I think the likelihood of finding life goes up significantly,” Doug McCuistion, a former head of NASA’s Mars program, told the Boston Herald. “If the water went underground, life might have gone underground with it.”
The discovery of water would also be an enormous boon for the mission teams that NASA is hoping to send to Mars in the 2030s. If water does, indeed, exist on Mars, it would mean that refuel rockets would no longer have to include water with their supplies, allowing human teams to be much more self-sustaining.
Earlier this year, NASA began to test the potential for those missions through the Year In Space study, which examines the effects of long-term spaceflight on the human mind and body. NASA missions to Mars would typically last between two to three years.