WASHINGTON – Arizona researchers announced “the best evidence to date of liquid water on Mars,” saying photos from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter suggest more than 1,000 dark flows of briny water near the Martian equator.
Alfred McEwen, a planetary geologist with the University of Arizona’s Planetary Image Research Laboratory, has been researching the surface of “several steep slopes” on Mars for more than three Mars years — nearly six Earth years.
At a briefing Thursday at NASA headquarters, McEwen said researchers have seen a “whole suite of bizarre phenomenon” on Mars, but seeing seven sites of more than 1,000 individual suspected flows of water is “circumstantial evidence for water on Mars.”
The flows can be seen in a time-lapse photo show on NASA’s website. The time already logged on the project is significant because it has spanned three Mars springs, but without direct contact, water on that planet is still speculation, the researchers said.
During the years of research on Mars, more than 17.5 terabytes of information have helped researchers track a seasonal, springtime flow of suspected liquid water in areas near the equator.
“Much water found on Mars is found in the form of ice,” said Philip Christensen, a geophysicist from Arizona State University. But the possible presence of liquid water increases the chances of life or, in the words of one NASA official, “if there’s water, there’s life.”
The average temperature on Mars is minus-80 degrees Fahrenheit, but the water that researchers believe they found near the Martian equator is estimated to be between 80 degrees and minus-10 degrees Fahrenheit.
The briny flows “emanating from bedrock” can remain a liquid on the frigid planet partly because of the high salt content of the water, the researchers said.
Lisa Pratt, a bio-geochemist from Indiana University Bloomington, said they believe the Martian water is “like the juice found in pickle jars” — very, very salty.
Researchers additionally point to the Martian atmosphere for evidence of the saltiness of the water: Pure water in the planet’s dense, carbon-dioxide-heavy atmosphere would boil at those temperatures, they said.
“These flows are much closer to the equator,” Christensen said, “proving that water is much closer to the equator and possibly in liquid form.”
Pratt and others said the findings could point to a chance for biological processes to exist on Mars. But they conceded that it will be difficult to determine without direct contact with the planet.
For now, McEwen said he will continue with observation and laboratory testing.
Maggie Pingolt is a reporter for Cronkite News Service.