There just might be life on Mars after all, and that means all your alien theories may not be so crazy

Dark streaks formed along the slopes of Mars’ rocky terrain confirm the existence of liquid water, NASA scientists claim. The streaks appear during the warmer months, disappearing when it gets too cold. And with NASA’s discovery of hydrated minerals present on the surface of these darkened areas, they are sure they have a connection with water.

‘There is liquid water today on the surface of Mars. Because of this, we suspect that it is at least possible to have a habitable environment today’, lead scientist Michael Meyer told reporters.

The slopes were first discovered in 2010 by Lujendra Ojha, a then undergraduate student at the University of Arizona. It took five years before these slopes could be confirmed for what they really were with scientists using infrared light that reflected off the affected areas.

But what took so long for scientists to make this discovery? That’s where it gets tricky.

Scientists believe that the reason these dark patches appear and disappear correlates with the temperature. Due to the hydrated salts found in these areas, the freezing point of this liquid water would be lowered. That means that when it gets just warm enough, small amounts of water are able to make it to the surface and flow downwards, leaving these whimsical patterns along the Martian soil. The minerals left behind explain why these areas darken.

But that’s just one theory.

Another possible explanation for how water forms these dark streaks, known scientifically as ‘recurring slope linae’ or RSL, is the process of deliquescence. Because of the type of salts that are present on the surface of Mars, it is possible that they absorb water from the atmosphere until there’s so much that the water starts to trickle down the slopes.

This is a major discovery for NASA, especially since any talk about water on Mars usually refers to it in the past tense—Mars once had water. Or it refers to the frozen ice trapped on Mars’ polar caps. Earlier this year, NASA introduced a theory explaining how most of the surface of the Red Planet was once, in fact, covered by oceans. But now they are realizing that liquid water has existed all along.

This discovery opens a vast array of doors for scientists, leading them down paths that resemble decades-old sci-fi films. But now that there is proof of water on Mars, what other discoveries will be made? Suddenly, those blurry photos of human-like creatures creeping in the background of NASA’s own images become much more credible.

OK , maybe not credible, but they certainly reignite questions.

So what does this say about the search for alien life? Nothing substantial.

While the discovery of water proves there’s a possibility of life on the Red Planet, it doesn’t make any guarantees. However, now that NASA has found these deposits, they’ll have a better idea of where to look for foreign life. But all hopes for the discovery of aliens aside, with the existence of water, Mars is rapidly becoming a more habitable planet.

OK, now what? Again, scientists are a bit stumped.

NASA can send the rover to these craters and canyons, but what happens if in doing so, they contaminate the soil? There’s no guarantee that bugs from earth won’t be present in the wheels of the rover as it makes its way along the Martian terrain.

Not only is that a bad thing, ethically, but it also goes against the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that forbids any program from ‘sending a mission, robot or human, close to a water source in the fear of contaminating it with life from Earth’.

And considering that getting to Mars is a bit of a trek, the ability to sterilize the Mars rover for such a long journey is unlikely to meet the treaty’s standards.

Legalities aside, the question of how to 100 per cent prove the existence of water on Mars is one scientists will be struggling with over the next few weeks. But for now, it’s a time of celebration. Because we’re one step closer to solving a mystery that, years ago, would have been unthinkable to even attempt.

 

Sources:

http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/sep/28/nasa-scientists-find-evidence-flowing-water-mars

http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/sep/29/nasa-crossroads-mars-water-without-contamination-curiosity-rover

https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-confirms-evidence-that-liquid-water-flows-on-today-s-mars