Why Curiosity never would have found water on Mars

Difficult terrain and UN space exploration rules mean we're far away from getting a closer look at liquid water on Mars. 

REUTERS/NASA/Handout
NASA's Mars rover Curiosity is pictured in this February 3, 2013 handout self-portrait obtained by Reuters February 9, 2013. The image was made by combining dozens of exposures taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). The rover is positioned at a patch of flat outcrop called "John Klein," which was selected as the site for the first rock-drilling activities by Curiosity. The rover's robotic arm is not visible in the mosaic. MAHLI, which took the component images for this mosaic, is mounted on a turret at the end of the arm. The arm was positioned out of the shot in the images or portions of images used in the mosaic. REUTERS/NASA/Handout.

Don’t expect Mars rover Curiosity to capture any selfies splashing around in the Red Planet’s newly-discovered liquid water just yet.

In fact, NASA’s rover would likely have never found flowing water on Mars, a breakthrough discovery made using the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and announced by NASA on Monday.

Why? Curiosity is physically incapable of reaching the steep terrain where this water was found, according to CNET.

But more importantly, the Outer Space Treaty, a 1967 United Nations document which sets the rules for space exploration, requires such exploration to eschew interplanetary contamination by Earth life – that means no human or robot can get near any water source.

As Quartz’s Akshat Rathi reported, it is extremely difficult to avoid this.

Terrestrial life has been shown to be very resilient. Microbes are found in almost every nook and cranny of this planet, even the driest and hottest parts. Earth’s microbes survived nearly two years stuck on the outside of the International Space Station. All probes that land on Mars are cleaned to be sterilized of life but no one yet knows how strict you need to be to ensure that bacterial life cannot form viable, self-sustaining colonies on Mars.

Rathi added that there is an abundance of regions designated as no-go zones, including “areas that are warm or wet enough to support Martian life ... Polar ice caps, caves, and regions with volcanic activity are such special regions. Even regions where ice is found as deep as five meters below the surface are on the list.”

This presents a major barrier for on-the-ground exploration moving forward, and could lead to disagreement among the scientific community over how to collect more research. As the Guardian’s Ian Sample reported, NASA now faces a dilemma over Curiosity’s role in analyzing the water sources.

However, the dark, damp streaks, called recurring slope lineae (RSL), are a different prospect. Because they are wet at least part of the time, they will be designated as special regions where only sterile landers can visit. But such a restriction could hamper scientists’ hopes of looking for current life on Mars.

“There will be heated discussions in the next weeks and months about what Curiosity will be allowed to do and whether it can go anywhere near the RSLs,” said Andrew Coates of University College London’s Mullard space science laboratory.

But the Guardian also noted that Curiosity could still analyze the water flows from a distance, though a second, more controversial direction would be to "find a flat region at the bottom of one of the flows, and scoop up some Martian soil for analysis."

In March, NASA published research showing the Red Planet used to have an ocean covering nearly half of the planet’s northern hemisphere. It would have held more water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean and, in some places, would have been deeper than a mile.

And last week, The Christian Science Monitor reported on NASA’s plans for a manned mission to Mars sometime in the 2030s. It remains to be seen whether astronauts would be able to utilize the water found on the Red Planet.

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