NASA's ongoing exploration of Mars just got a whole lot more interesting.
"The discovery we're talking about today is most exciting because it suggests it would be possible for life to be there today," said John Grunsfeld, the Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, at a news briefing this morning.
The agency then announced that they found the first direct evidence for their long-held hypothesis that liquid water exists on the surface of Mars during the planet's warmer seasons. The findings are detailed in a paper published in Nature Geosciences.
"Mars is not the dry arid planet thought of in the past," said Jim Green, NASA's Planetary Science Division Director. "Today we're going to announce that liquid water has been found on Mars." The water is exceedingly briny, but we know from studying extremophiles on Earth that life can not only survive, but also thrive, in extreme environments — including ones with high pressure, high temperature, high salinity, and other conditions that aren't habitable to humans.
"It took multiple spacecraft over several years to solve this mystery," explained Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. The key that's been missing until now, he said, was confirmation that “recurring slope lineae" or the "dark streaks that form in late spring, grow through the summer and disappear in the fall" are actually, as they suspected, water-related.
Lujendra Ojha, a scientist at Georgia Tech first spotted the lineae back in 2010. Since then, he and and his team determined that the salts — magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate, and sodium perchlorate — had water molecules scattered throughout their crystal structures, which is pretty solid evidence they got there by way of flowing water.
So, how likely is it that there's life on Mars? Alfred McEwen, principal investigator for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment at the University of Arizona, Tucson said, "The possibility of life in the interior of Mars has always been very high ... It's very likely I think that there is life somewhere in the crust of Mars, microbes."
What's next? Well, the team yet doesn’t know where the water is coming from, or how much of it there is yet — so finding that out is a top priority. They also plan to "send humans in the near future to Mars ... to be able to live on the surface," said John Grunsfeld. "The resources are there."
While we might have already had an inkling that we weren't alone, the odds are now greater than ever that we might have some extraterrestrial company. And we might be able to join 'em over there soon.
Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona