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Forum:Free Space
Topic:Signs of liquid water on the surface of Mars
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Jurg BolliVery interesting, thanks for posting it.
SpacefestI must put in a plug for Tucson's own Al McEwen, P.I.on the MRO camera. Dr. McEwen has been a featured speaker at Spacefests II and III.
328KFDoes this affect any operations for the upcoming Curiosity rover? Are there areas of Gale Crater that also exhibit these flows that can be directly investigated?
Robert PearlmanUnfortunately, no. From The New York Times:
The Mars Science Laboratory rover, scheduled to launch late this year, will not be able to help. Its landing site is far from any of the streaks, and it would not be able to navigate the steep slopes.
David CareyFantastic stuff. It's unfortunate that direct surface observation will not be possible any time soon.

It would be great to confirm that flowing liquid water exists but I wondered if seasonal winds (aeolian activity) could be blowing dark silt from upper strata into the valleys/gullies and lower geographic features, with later (seasonal) dissipation. Despite the rarefied atmosphere on Mars and fractional pressures at work, could the patterns observed be explained by such an alternative?

I don't know enough here to even be dangerous so I'd be curious to hear from others who might. For the record, I prefer the idea of flowing water and wish them the best in conclusively proving the thesis.

Per McEwen's quote "It's a mystery now, but I think it's a solvable mystery with further observations and laboratory experiments". Hopefully those experiments will continue, and a bright spot in NASA activities amidst some of our shared gloom around the decline in manned missions.

So much still to learn from even our closest neighbors...

cspgI thought that water in liquid form cannot exist on Mars due to the planet's thin atmosphere (liquid will vaporize as soon as it reaches the surface).

It was an international study. There were Swiss scientists (not that I care) involved in that study (University of Bern).

Robert PearlmanAs mentioned in the press release, the liquid water being theorized is a briny solution. From NASA Science:
Saltiness lowers the freezing temperature of water. Sites with active flows get warm enough, even in the shallow subsurface, to sustain liquid water that is about as salty as Earth's oceans, while pure water would freeze at the observed temperatures.
Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA to Announce Mars Mystery Solved

NASA will detail a major science finding from the agency's ongoing exploration of Mars during a news briefing at 11:30 a.m. EDT (1530 GMT) on Monday, Sept. 28 at NASA Headquarters in Washington. The event will be broadcast live on NASA Television and the agency's website.

News conference participants will be:

  • Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters
  • Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters
  • Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta
  • Mary Beth Wilhelm of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California and the Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Alfred McEwen, principal investigator for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) at the University of Arizona in Tucson
Members of the public can ask questions during the briefing using #AskNASA.
Robert PearlmanNASA scientists have found evidence for liquid brines near the planet's surface that might provide a habitable zone for microbes today. If the discovery holds, it should guide future missions to Mars in the quest to find out whether the red planet can support life, Nature reports.
Images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), a camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), have revealed thousands of narrow, dark streaks that appear on some of Mars's steep slopes during warmer seasons.

The streaks appear on equator-facing slopes in the mid-latitudes of the southern hemisphere, and can grow by as much as 20 metres a day. Temperatures in this part of the planet can rise as high as 27ºC during warm seasons. That's easily warm enough for water to exist, especially if it contains salts, which lower the melting temperature of ice. By winter, the streaks have faded or vanished.

HiRISE principal investigator Alfred McEwen, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, thinks that the most likely explanation is that the streaks are formed by briny water oozing downhill in small, steep channels.

He says that the streaks are the strongest evidence yet for the existence of liquid water on Mars today. "This can focus the search for extant life on Mars," he says. He and his colleagues report their findings today in Science.

Robert PearlmanEven though RSLs appear to be some of the most intriguing features on Mars, no one is likely to get a close-up look any time soon, The New York Times reports.
R.S.L.s are treated as special regions that NASA’s current robotic explorers are barred from because the rovers were not thoroughly sterilized, and NASA worries that they might be carrying microbial hitchhikers from Earth that could contaminate Mars.

Of the spacecraft NASA has sent to Mars, only the two Viking landers in 1976 were baked to temperatures hot enough to kill Earth microbes. NASA’s next Mars rover, scheduled to launch in 2020, will be no cleaner. Sterilizing spacecraft, which requires electronics and systems that can withstand the heat of baking, adds to the cost and complicates the design.

In selecting the landing site for the 2020 rover, the space agency is ruling out places that might be habitable, including those with R.S.L.s.

That prohibition may continue even though two candidate R.S.L.s have been identified on the mountain in Gale Crater that NASA’s Curiosity rover is now exploring, not very far from its current planned path.

NASA and the Curiosity team could decide to approach the streaks without driving onto them, or to simply observe from a distance. The rover still has at least several months of driving before it would pass them.

Robert Pearlman
NASA Confirms Evidence That Liquid Water Flows on Today's Mars

New findings from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter provide the strongest evidence yet that liquid water flows intermittently on present-day Mars.

Above: These dark, narrow, 100 meter-long streaks called recurring slope lineae flowing downhill on Mars are inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water. Recently, planetary scientists detected hydrated salts on these slopes at Hale crater, corroborating their original hypothesis that the streaks are indeed formed by liquid water.

The blue color seen upslope of the dark streaks are thought not to be related to their formation, but instead are from the presence of the mineral pyroxene. The image is produced by draping an orthorectified (Infrared-Red-Blue/Green (IRB)) false color image (ESP_030570_1440) on a Digital Terrain Model (DTM) of the same site produced by High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (University of Arizona). Vertical exaggeration is 1.5. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Using an imaging spectrometer on MRO, researchers detected signatures of hydrated minerals on slopes where mysterious streaks are seen on the Red Planet. These darkish streaks appear to ebb and flow over time. They darken and appear to flow down steep slopes during warm seasons, and then fade in cooler seasons. They appear in several locations on Mars when temperatures are above minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 23 Celsius), and disappear at colder times.

"Our quest on Mars has been to 'follow the water,' in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we've long suspected," said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water — albeit briny — is flowing today on the surface of Mars."

These downhill flows, known as recurring slope lineae (RSL), often have been described as possibly related to liquid water. The new findings of hydrated salts on the slopes point to what that relationship may be to these dark features. The hydrated salts would lower the freezing point of a liquid brine, just as salt on roads here on Earth causes ice and snow to melt more rapidly. Scientists say it's likely a shallow subsurface flow, with enough water wicking to the surface to explain the darkening.

"We found the hydrated salts only when the seasonal features were widest, which suggests that either the dark streaks themselves or a process that forms them is the source of the hydration. In either case, the detection of hydrated salts on these slopes means that water plays a vital role in the formation of these streaks," said Lujendra Ojha of the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, lead author of a report on these findings published Sept. 28 by Nature Geoscience.

Above: Dark narrow streaks called recurring slope lineae emanating out of the walls of Garni crater on Mars. The dark streaks here are up to few hundred meters in length. They are hypothesized to be formed by flow of briny liquid water on Mars. The image is produced by draping an orthorectified (RED) image (ESP_031059_1685) on a Digital Terrain Model (DTM) of the same site produced by High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (University of Arizona). Vertical exaggeration is 1.5. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Ojha first noticed these puzzling features as a University of Arizona undergraduate student in 2010, using images from the MRO's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE). HiRISE observations now have documented RSL at dozens of sites on Mars. The new study pairs HiRISE observations with mineral mapping by MRO's Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM).

The spectrometer observations show signatures of hydrated salts at multiple RSL locations, but only when the dark features were relatively wide. When the researchers looked at the same locations and RSL weren't as extensive, they detected no hydrated salt.

Ojha and his co-authors interpret the spectral signatures as caused by hydrated minerals called perchlorates. The hydrated salts most consistent with the chemical signatures are likely a mixture of magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate and sodium perchlorate. Some perchlorates have been shown to keep liquids from freezing even when conditions are as cold as minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 70 Celsius). On Earth, naturally produced perchlorates are concentrated in deserts, and some types of perchlorates can be used as rocket propellant.

Perchlorates have previously been seen on Mars. NASA's Phoenix lander and Curiosity rover both found them in the planet's soil, and some scientists believe that the Viking missions in the 1970s measured signatures of these salts. However, this study of RSL detected perchlorates, now in hydrated form, in different areas than those explored by the landers. This also is the first time perchlorates have been identified from orbit.

MRO has been examining Mars since 2006 with its six science instruments.

"The ability of MRO to observe for multiple Mars years with a payload able to see the fine detail of these features has enabled findings such as these: first identifying the puzzling seasonal streaks and now making a big step towards explaining what they are," said Rich Zurek, MRO project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

For Ojha, the new findings are more proof that the mysterious lines he first saw darkening Martian slopes five years ago are, indeed, present-day water.

"When most people talk about water on Mars, they're usually talking about ancient water or frozen water," he said. "Now we know there's more to the story. This is the first spectral detection that unambiguously supports our liquid water-formation hypotheses for RSL."

The discovery is the latest of many breakthroughs by NASA's Mars missions.

"It took multiple spacecraft over several years to solve this mystery, and now we know there is liquid water on the surface of this cold, desert planet," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "It seems that the more we study Mars, the more we learn how life could be supported and where there are resources to support life in the future."

There are eight co-authors of the Nature Geoscience paper, including Mary Beth Wilhelm at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California and Georgia Tech; CRISM Principal Investigator Scott Murchie of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland; and HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona. Others are at Georgia Tech, the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and Laboratoire de Planétologie et Géodynamique in Nantes, France.

The agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Lockheed Martin built the orbiter and collaborates with JPL to operate it.

KiteWhat exciting news. Congratulations to all involved in detecting this evidence. Brilliant.
BlackarrowThis has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride. At least 10 years ago (from memory) Mars Global Surveyor spotted similar streaks and it was announced that they were caused by flows of water. Then the water theory was questioned. Now, with a better camera and further study the original proposition has been confirmed. Excellent work! (And no bad thing to see earlier scepticism: extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof).
Robert PearlmanGoogle's Doodle today (Sept. 29) honors NASA's Mars water announcement:

KiteI wonder if Percival Lowell is looking down upon on us he would be saying 'I told you so'!
Robert PearlmanNASA release
Mars Gullies Likely Not Formed by Liquid Water

New findings using data from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter show that gullies on modern Mars are likely not being formed by flowing liquid water. This new evidence will allow researchers to further narrow theories about how Martian gullies form, and reveal more details about Mars' recent geologic processes.

Scientists use the term "gully" for features on Mars that share three characteristics in their shape: an alcove at the top, a channel, and an apron of deposited material at the bottom. Gullies are distinct from another type of feature on Martian slopes, streaks called "recurring slope lineae," or RSL, which are distinguished by seasonal darkening and fading, rather than characteristics of how the ground is shaped. Water in the form of hydrated salt has been identified at RSL sites. The new study focuses on gullies and their formation process by adding composition information to previously acquired imaging.

Above: The highly incised Martian gullies resemble gullies on Earth that are carved by liquid water. However, when the gullies are observed with the addition of mineralogical information, no evidence for alteration by water appears.

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, examined high-resolution compositional data from more than 100 gully sites throughout Mars. These data, collected by the orbiter's Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), were then correlated with images from the same spacecraft's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera and Context Camera (CTX).

The findings showed no mineralogical evidence for abundant liquid water or its by-products, thus pointing to mechanisms other than the flow of water -- such as the freeze and thaw of carbon dioxide frost -- as being the major drivers of recent gully evolution.

The findings were published in Geophysical Research Letters.

Gullies are a widespread and common feature on the Martian surface, mostly occurring between 30 and 50 degrees latitude in both the northern and southern hemispheres, generally on slopes that face toward the poles. On Earth, similar gullies are formed by flowing liquid water; however, under current conditions, liquid water is transient on the surface of Mars, and may occur only as small amounts of brine even at RSL streaks. The lack of sufficient water to carve gullies has resulted in a variety of theories for the gullies' creation, including different mechanisms involving evaporation of water and carbon dioxide frost.

"The HiRISE team and others had shown there was seasonal activity in gullies -- primarily in the southern hemisphere -- over the past couple of years, and carbon dioxide frost is the main mechanism they suspected of causing it. However, other researchers favored liquid water as the main mechanism," said Jorge Núñez of APL, the lead author of the paper. "What HiRISE and other imagers were not able to determine on their own was the composition of the material in gullies, because they are optical cameras. To bring another important piece in to help solve the puzzle, we used CRISM, an imaging spectrometer, to look at what kinds of minerals were present in the gullies and see if they could shed light on the main mechanism responsible."

Núñez and his colleagues took advantage of a new CRISM data product called Map-projected Targeted Reduced Data Records. It allowed them to more easily perform their analyses and then correlate the findings with HiRISE imagery.

"On Earth and on Mars, we know that the presence of phyllosilicates — clays — or other hydrated minerals indicates formation in liquid water," Núñez said. "In our study, we found no evidence for clays or other hydrated minerals in most of the gullies we studied, and when we did see them, they were erosional debris from ancient rocks, exposed and transported downslope, rather than altered in more recent flowing water. These gullies are carving into the terrain and exposing clays that likely formed billions of years ago when liquid water was more stable on the Martian surface."

Other researchers have created computer models that show how sublimation of seasonal carbon dioxide frost can create gullies similar to those observed on Mars, and how their shape can mimic the types of gullies that liquid water would create. The new study adds support to those models.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
Recurring Martian Streaks: Flowing Sand, Not Water?

Dark features on Mars previously considered evidence for subsurface flowing of water are interpreted by new research as granular flows, where grains of sand and dust slip downhill to make dark streaks, rather than the ground being darkened by seeping water.

Continuing examination of these still-perplexing seasonal dark streaks with a powerful camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) shows they exist only on slopes steep enough for dry grains to descend the way they do on faces of active dunes.

Above: This inner slope of a Martian crater has several of the seasonal dark streaks called "recurrent slope lineae," or RSL, that a November 2017 report interprets as granular flows, rather than darkening due to flowing water. The image is from the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA/USGS)

The findings published today in Nature Geoscience argue against the presence of enough liquid water for microbial life to thrive at these sites. However, exactly how these numerous flows begin and gradually grow has not yet been explained. Authors of the report propose possibilities that include involvement of small amounts of water, indicated by detection of hydrated salts observed at some of the flow sites.

These features have evoked fascination and controversy since their 2011 discovery, as possible markers for unexpected liquid water or brine on an otherwise dry planet. They are dark streaks that extend gradually downhill in warm seasons, then fade away in winter and reappear the next year. On Earth, only seeping water is known to have these behaviors, but how they form in the dry Martian environment remains unclear.

Many thousands of these Martian features, collectively called "recurring slope lineae" or RSL, have been identified in more than 50 rocky-slope areas, from the equator to about halfway to the poles.

"We've thought of RSL as possible liquid water flows, but the slopes are more like what we expect for dry sand," said Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey's Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. "This new understanding of RSL supports other evidence that shows that Mars today is very dry."

Dundas is lead author of the report, which is based on observations with the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on MRO. The data include 3-D models of slope steepness using pairs of images for stereo information. Dundas and co-authors examined 151 RSL features at 10 sites.

The RSL are almost all restricted to slopes steeper than 27 degrees. Each flow ends on a slope that matches the dynamic "angle of repose" seen in the slumping dry sand of dunes on Mars and Earth. A flow due to liquid water should readily extend to less steep slopes.

"The RSL don't flow onto shallower slopes, and the lengths of these are so closely correlated with the dynamic angle of repose, it can't be a coincidence," said HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen at the University of Arizona, Tucson, a co-author of the new report.

The seasonal dark streaks have been thought of as possible evidence for biologically significant liquid water -- sufficient water for microbial life -- though explaining how so much liquid water could exist on the surface in Mars' modern environment would be challenging. A granular-flow explanation for RSL fits with the earlier understanding that the surface of modern Mars, exposed to a cold, thin atmosphere, lacks flowing water. A 2016 report also cast doubt on possible sources of underground water at RSL sites. Liquid water on today's Mars may be limited to traces of dissolved moisture from the atmosphere and thin films, which are challenging environments for life as we know it.

However, RSL remain puzzling. Traits with uncertain explanations include their gradual growth, their seasonal reappearance, their rapid fading when inactive, and the presence of hydrated salts, which have water molecules bound into their crystal stucture.

The new report describes possible connections between these traits and how RSL form. For example, salts can become hydrated by pulling water vapor from the atmosphere, and this process can form drops of salty water. Seasonal changes in hydration of salt-containing grains might result in some trigger mechanism for RSL grainflows, such as expansion, contraction, or release of some water. Darkening and fading might result from changes in hydration. If atmospheric water vapor is a trigger, then a question is why the RSL appear on some slopes but not others.

"RSL probably form by some mechanism that is unique to the environment of Mars," McEwen said, "so they represent an opportunity to learn about how Mars behaves, which is important for future surface exploration."

"Full understanding of RSL is likely to depend upon on-site investigation of these features," said MRO Project Scientist Rich Zurek of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. "While the new report suggests that RSL are not wet enough to favor microbial life, it is likely that on-site investigation of these sites will still require special procedures to guard against introducing microbes from Earth, at least until they are definitively characterized. In particular, a full explanation of how these enigmatic features darken and fade still eludes us. Remote sensing at different times of day could provide important clues."

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