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Mars: What’s in the water?

Lona Middleton
Columnist
Lkemp@lhup.edu

wikimedia.org

wikimedia.org

It has been all over every available media outlet for a few days now. NASA has found flowing water on Mars thanks to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). This is huge, the media tells the public. Okay, but why is this such a big deal? The water isn’t really water as it would typically be defined. Let’s just take a closer look at why this is such a monumental find for NASA.

First, the flowing water that has been identified on Mars is actually a brine made of perchlorate salts. It is liquid but maybe flowing is a little too strong of a word. It is more likely oozing along the sides of the Martian underground. Even though the brine is a thick salty goo is no reason to discount it. There is hydrogen and oxygen in the liquid, though it is very salty. This is a huge discovery.

This breakthrough opens many conversations for scientists. First, rocket fuel is made from these very elements. The discovery of water has made the idea of a refueling station on Mars viable. This is still years in the future but it is now something NASA and other space agencies can begin to plan.

Scientists have always expected that where there is water, there is life. So does this mean that there could possibly be life on Mars? Yes. That is exactly what it means even if the life is a small microbial living in the brine. It is still life. The problem with proving this is getting a sample to study without contaminating the brine. Everything humans make carries some of our microbes. These could kill off any life we find, Lee Billings of Scientific American, explains.

According to the lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, Michael Meyer, it appears the deeper we peer into Mars, the greater the chance it can support life. There are still many hurdles to get over before we know exactly what Mars has hidden below its surface. The discovery of a flowing water source is a massive scientific boost to our efforts in understanding the red planet and our hopes of future space exploration.

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