In an undated handout photo, portions of the Martian surface shot by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show many channels on a scarp in the Hellas impact basin. Scientists reported on Monday definitive signs of liquid water on the surface of present-day Mars, a finding that will fuel speculation that life, if it ever arose there, could persist to now. (Jet Propulsion Laboratory/University of Arizona/NASA) -- NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH STORY SLUGGED MARS WATER BY KENNETH CHANG. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. --

September 30, 2015

Water on Mars: Does It Matter?

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During a news conference Monday, NASA confirmed the discovery of liquid water on the surface of Mars, possibly hinting toward the possibility of life on the red planet, according to The New York Times. The Sun reached out to Prof. Alexander Hayes, astronomy, to get another take on what this means for further research and public opinion.

What were your first thoughts upon hearing about the discovery? Were you expecting it?

My first thought was: “Great! We have confirmed how these Recurring Slope Linea (RSL) are generated.” My second through was: “OK, where is the water coming from; subsurface springs or atmospheric condensation?” Now that we know for sure that the RSLs are formed by flowing water, the next step to is to figure out where the water came from. As to whether I was expecting this result, the idea that RSLs are formed from briny water flows was first mentioned in the paper that discovered the phenomena (written by Alfred McEwen) in 2011. The results presented at the press conference confirmed that theory using careful measurements and detailed analysis.

What kind of life, if any, might be possible in light of this newfound moisture? Would these organisms necessarily be similar to those of Earth?

The water was identified in the Recurring Slope Linea (RSL) by the salts that are left behind after it evaporates. These salts suggest that any water that flowed over the surface had a VERY high salinity. It would be very difficult for life as we know it to exist in that environment. There is a reason that we cure meat with salt to make it last, the salt makes it very difficult for bacteria and other microorganisms to survive. Now, if the water was sourced from a subsurface reservoir (and we don’t know if it was) then that would be very interesting. If subsurface water existed on Mars today then that environment could be more conducive to life than the hyper-saline flows that we are observing from orbit.

Since salty liquid water can exist at subzero temperatures, is there a possibility that this water is altogether inhospitable to life?

Yes, a highly saline environment is not very conducive to life as we know it.

How do you think this will/should affect the planning for the 2020 rover mission? Do you think it makes sense for NASA to worry about contaminating the surface with microbes from Earth?

Ultimately, I do not think this discovery will have much affect on the Mars 2020 mission. The RSL are located on steep slopes that we do not have the technology to access. Furthermore the planetary protection issues are real and, if we do visit the RSL sites (or perhaps more interestingly their sources), the mission will need to be designed for it. Mars 2020 is not designed to visit an RSL site.

How do you think this will affect public opinion of space research in general?

Honestly, it is a bit of a double-edged sword. While this is amazing research that is deserving of a press conference, the public has also heard multiple press conferences that claim to have discovered water on Mars. The difference here is that we are talking about active natural processes that result in flowing water (as opposed to condensation on a spacecraft part) today as opposed to the past. Whether or not the public is sensitive to that distinction has yet to be seen.