CAPE CANAVERA // Mars appears to have flowing streams of salty water, at least in the summer, scientists reported on Monday in a finding that could have major implications for the possibility of life on the red planet.
Although the source and the chemistry of the water is unknown, the discovery will change scientists’ thinking about whether the planet that is most like Earth in the solar system could support present day microbial life.
“It suggests that it would be possible for life to be on Mars today,” John Grunsfeld, Nasa’s associate administration for science, said.
“Mars is not the dry, arid planet that we thought of in the past. Under certain circumstances, liquid water has been found on Mars,” said Jim Green, the agency’s director of planetary science.
Scientists in 2008 confirmed the existence of frozen water on Mars. But the latest observations from an instrument aboard Nasa's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft strongly support the longtime theory that salt water in liquid form flows down certain Martian slopes each summer, according to the researchers.
“Mars just got more interesting,” Nasa said via Twitter before holding a news conference at its Washington headquarters. The space agency called the results “a major science finding”.
Because liquid water is essential to life, the findings could boost the notion of living organisms on Mars.
The researchers said in the journal Nature Geoscience that further exploration is warranted to determine whether microscopic life exists on the planet.
The evidence of flowing streams consists of dark, narrow streaks on the surface that tend to appear and grow during the warmest Martian months and fade the rest of the year.
Mars is extremely cold even in summer, and the streaks are in places where the temperature has climbed above minus-10°F. But salt can lower the freezing point of water and melt ice.
The source of the water is still a mystery. Scientists noted it could be melting ice, an underground aquifer, water vapor from the thin Martian atmosphere, or some combination.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been circling the planet since 2006.
* Associated Press and Reuters