Everyone is excited about the potential implications of finding liquid water on Mars. Does this mean we can travel there soon? Could Mars actually sustain life? Has it done so in the past? After all of the press this discovery has received, there seem to be more questions than answers.
So what does it all mean? Why does water matter? Let’s take a closer look.
Is this the first time we’ve found water in our solar system?
No. In fact, we’ve seen a lot of water, and we’ve seen a lot of evidence of water. Take a look at some of the places water currently exists in our solar system.
The Moon: Our own moon has millions of tons of ice at its north pole.
Mars: We’ve known for quite some time that its poles are home to frozen ice caps. Scientists have even detected evidence of tiny liquid puddles of water that form on Mars’ surface at night.
Europa: Everything about the surface of Jupiter’s moon indicates that there is an ocean just below the surface. Scientists have even detected evidence of ice geysers.
Neptune and Uranus: While these planets are often called “gas giants”, we have evidence that there is ice in these planets interiors.
Why is the recent discovery of water on Mars so significant?
Because it isn’t just about water. It’s about liquid, flowing water. According to the astrobiologists at NASA, there are three chemical components that are conditions for the evolution of life:
– liquid water
– essential elements like carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur
– energy that is able to be harnessed (such as heat)
Up till now, NASA hasn’t seen an abundance of liquid water on Mars. What makes this discovery unique is that this is the first time scientists have seen the flowing water firsthand. Because the water contains an abundance of chemicals, it is able to remain liquid in Mars’ cold climate. These chemicals also prevent the liquid from boiling off because of the Red Planet’s thin atmosphere.
Does this mean Mars is habitable?
Not necessarily… we don’t have enough answers. In order to be habitable, a planet might need a strong atmosphere and a working magnetic field. Mars has both of these, but neither are as strong as what we see here on our own planet.
What’s next? When can we learn more about the water on Mars?
There is no end to the number of questions we can ask about Mars. The next mission to Mars, NASA’s InSight, will launch in 2016. This mission involves placing a single geophysical lander on Mars to learn more about its core. Perhaps by studying the Red Planet’s interior, we will be able to learn more about how our rocky planets were shaped more than four billion years ago.
It’s possible that we will have more answers when the lander arrives… and even more questions.