This image of Mars was taken in October 24, with MOM taking advantage of its elliptical orbit to capture the planet’s breadth. Credit: ISRO

Summing up the ‘water on Mars’ announcement

I wrote an explainer summing up (almost) all we know about the recent NASA announcement of finding water on Mars for the Mumbai Mirror. An excerpt:

Some time in its past, a fifth of the Martian surface was thought to be covered in oceans, kilometres deep, before something happened for all that liquid to disappear. In time, what was also thought to be a thicker atmosphere dissipated, supposedly leaking away into space through a series of chemical reactions, leaving Mars to be the desolate land it is today. These are two of the more important mysteries that scientists want to understand for signs of whether something similar could happen on Earth as well as to make sense of our immediate planetary neighbourhood.

Because with large oceans of liquid water and an atmosphere rich in gases like oxygen, Mars could’ve harboured life — at least life that resembled the life that exists on Earth. Imagine how exciting that would be, to find out that at some point, there was someone next door. For this, many of the world’s space-faring nations have spent billions building, launching and operating orbiters, satellites that get into orbit around Mars and study the atmosphere and surface properties; landers that drop down on the surface; rovers, the little cars loaded with science instruments moving around, drilling into rocks, probing the dust.

On September 28, NASA announced that it had found evidence of liquid water flowing on Mars. This is a deceptively ambiguous statement for many reasons. Foremost is that NASA has been announcing similar news since the 2000s because there are many ways to infer the signs of liquid water, but the only thing that will tell us for sure if there’s liquid water on Mars is if we spot liquid water itself. This hasn’t happened yet.


3 responses to “Summing up the ‘water on Mars’ announcement”

  1. Richard Mallett Avatar
    Richard Mallett

    It seems that there must be very little water flow, based on the photos that I have seen, since the streaks don’t go all the way to the bottom of the hill.

    1. According to an AMA some NASA scientists did on the day of the announcement, it wasn’t so much a flow as much as a seep.

      The sources and sinks of the water are also yet to be characterised, and these would explain why the streaks are where they are and why not longer or shorter, etc. One hindrance is that the best resolution of MRO’s instruments is still lower than the RSL’s width: about 5 metres at best.

  2. Torbjörn Larsson Avatar
    Torbjörn Larsson

    The spectral signature of showed that recurrent slope lineae were brines and that they were temporary. It is therefore wrong to claim that ” … we spot liquid water … This hasn’t happened”. Brines are liquid water, and their observation was reported. If you or someone else can fault the observation, fine, but that has happened.