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Science: 

So, there’s water on Mars – what does it mean?

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The brown bits are traces of water on Mars, apparently / Photo: NASA, JPL, University of Arizona

Since first landing on Mars back in 1976, NASA has been scouring the planet’s surface for signs of H20. Now, after a drought of nearly four decades, the space agency has confirmed what we hoped for all along – yes, there is evidence of liquid water on Mars.

NASA has already flown past Pluto this year for the first time, but, as announcements go, ‘water on Mars’ will take some beating. And to think, just a couple of weeks ago Elon Musk wanted to nuke the place.

If we can find liquid water on Mars, the theory goes, then there’s a good chance of finding life, and – in the long-term – even making the planet inhabitable. So, now that we know it exists, what does it all mean?

Liquid water? Isn’t that just…water?

Not quite. We’ve actually known that Mars has frozen water for a long time, but temperatures on the icy planet should be much too cold to support the liquid form. At night, the planet can plunge to depths of -100 degrees celsius, keeping any trickle of liquid locked up in icy poles.

But evidence of an ancient watery past have long kept scientists intrigued. Even in its earliest explorations, NASA found evidence of dried-up Martian lakes, while research earlier this year suggested the Red Planet wasn’t always so red after all – possibly holding more water than Earth’s Arctic Ocean.

Before you get too excited, NASA hasn’t found an ocean. It hasn’t even found a puddle. What NASA has found is the evidence of liquid water on Mars, seen in the dark streaks in the image below.

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Streaks show the flow of briny liquid water / Photo: NASA, JPL, University of Arizona

Yes, we know – it’s hard to get excited about streaks, and even harder when they’re referred to as ‘recurring slope lineae’. According to NASA, though, they’re created by tiny streams of water that can travel hundreds of meters during the planet’s warmer summer months.

When are we moving to Mars, then?

Before you pack your bags, there are some more things you should know about the water on Mars. This isn’t the kind that you’d buy in a bottle or that comes out of the tap. It may not be drinkable in its current state or even look much like water at all.

During NASA’s press conference, planetary professor Alfred McEwen said – even in warmer months – the streaks are more likely to resemble “thin layers of wet soil”. On top of that, it’s likely to be incredibly briny, so much saltier than the water that fills our oceans – quick, somebody send Brita water filters.

Even if the water was clean and clear, it would only be one hurdle jumped, and the path to Mars is littered with even bigger obstacles. Indeed, it’s for good reasons that human beings have yet to set foot on Mars – from the largely inhospitable climate, to unknown viruses, limitations in engineering, and – believe it or not – the risk of dust clogging up the machinery.

“We spent $17 million trying to solve dust problems and I don’t know of one that worked,” said chief engineer Grant Anderson, talking to Wired. “John Young [commander of Apollo 16] was out on the moon brushing thermal panels with a pig-hair brush and it didn’t work well.”

Having said all that, liquid water on Mars is still a big deal. Alongside the nitrogen in the planet’s atmosphere, the water supply could allow us to grow crops in Martian greenhouses, which takes us an important step closer to colonizing the Red Planet.

What about aliens?

Naturally, now there is definitely water on Mars, the next question is whether or not extraterrestrial life could follow.

“Experience in the driest places on Earth tells us that life is very creative at taking advantage of very small amounts of water to survive and even thrive,” SETI researcher Alfonso Davila told told Mashable.

“Therefore this study adds to a growing body of evidence that the Martian habitability window might have closed not billions of years ago with the disappearance of lakes, as is commonly assumed, but much more recently.”

By studying the water on Mars, NASA will be able to get a better understanding of how life might have survived – and potentially still survive – on the planet. It also has a better idea of where to look – although it may not be where you expect.

It’s thought that the salty water found in canyons and craters would be too harsh for microbes to survive in, but its existence points to the potential for reservoirs or freshwater glaciers below the surface. If alien life on Mars does exist, then, it’s likely to be elsewhere – further north or south, and far below the surface.

So what can we do with the water on Mars?

As mentioned earlier, the presence of water on Mars could help us to grow plants in greenhouses or keep colonizing humans hydrated. That’s still some way off, though, and the resource is bound to be in short, expensive supply.

However, it’s not just the water itself that is of interest to NASA – it’s chemical components hydrogen and oxygen can also used to make rocket fuel. If there was a large enough water supply, it’s thought that it could fuel return journeys or even be used to venture further outwards.

While it’s still early days, should we find more water on Mars there are many more possibilities for human and alien life on the planet. NASA should find out more when its rovers return to the Red Planet for samples in 2020. Here’s hoping there’s life at the end of the tunnel.

Want to know more about Mars? Try these:

This TED infographic shows what life is like on Mars

Elon Musck wants to nuke Mars so we can all visit

Mars, Jupiter and the Sun – this is what’s next for NASA

NASA’s new Mars spacesuit is certainly different

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