Water in a Wasteland

Are we alone in the Universe?

The profound desire to answer this question is shared across humanity, independent of nationality, gender or race. As our technologies continue to improve, we move closer to finding an answer which, either way, would shape our perspective of the cosmos and our place within it. Recently NASA made a truly remarkable announcement regarding Mars. Though it wasn’t the discovery of Martians (not including Matt Damon), it was a huge step in the right direction.

Water. It’s the most prominent feature we see when looking at photos of the Earth and is essential to life as we know it. In 2002, scientists confirmed that water exists on our red neighbour, albeit in the form of ice. Though this was an astounding achievement at the time, recent research using the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) appears to confirm that the more desirable liquid state of the molecule has been discovered.

The evidence for this announcement comes from the analysis of dark streaks on the Martian surface, that fade out during cooler seasons, before returning as temperatures rise. Results from the imaging spectrometer on board the MRO, suggest that these dark streaks are the consequence of hydrated minerals. Lujendra Ojha, a scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, stated: “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.”

To investigate these streaks further, samples would need to be taken from the ground for analysis. Although it might appear that NASA’s Curiosity rover is in a perfect position to conduct this operation, Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty prevents it from doing so. It states: “Parties to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination.”

Rich Zurek, one of the scientists working on the MRO, explained: “because liquid water appears to be present, these regions are considered special regions where we have to take extra precautions to prevent contamination by earth life.” This restricts the access of the Curiosity rover, as it has “not been sterilised to the degree needed to go to an area where liquid water may be present”.

Therefore it may be some time before we know if microscopic life is indeed thriving on the planet, as researchers want to ensure that if life is discovered, it originated on Martian surface and not back on Earth. Regardless, discoveries of this nature are encouraging, as we continue our search for extraterrestrial life.

Image: Joanne Leong