Liquid Water on Mars

January 2016

Author Marianne Dyson’s Science Snacks Newsletter

Hello, and a special welcome to the new subscribers who signed up at Kennedy Space Center. Each month I pick one short science news or fact to share. I hope to see many of you again at future space or writing events where we can discuss our space stories!

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Buzz & I signed Welcome to Mars at Kennedy Space Center on December 19, 2015 with help from Christina (Santa hat), & ShareSpace team of Linn, Rob, & Bob.

Liquid Water on Mars

On September 28, 2015, Georgia Tech grad student Lujendra Ojha published her evidence of liquid water on the surface of Mars. That same week, the first print run of Welcome to Mars was nearly sold out. Our editor at NatGeo suggested we reflect the water discovery in the second print run. So I asked myself, what impact does finding liquid water have to our plans to settle Mars?

It wasn’t news that there is water on Mars. Astronomers have observed the polar ice caps wax and wane with the seasons for more than a century. The Viking landers photographed frost forming on the surface. The Mars Phoenix Lander released video of ice sublimating (vaporizing) from the soil underneath its thrusters. The Curiosity rover found sufficient ice in the dirt that 3 cubic feet (0.08 m3) when heated, would produce enough water (6 pints or 2.8 L) for a person for a day.

Additionally, there is ample evidence from orbiting spacecraft that Mars once had oceans. Many have speculated that some of this water remains in underground aquifers.

But no one expected to find liquid water ON THE SURFACE of Mars!

The atmospheric pressure is so low, and the temperature so cold, that exposed water ice should instantly sublimate like we saw with the Phoenix lander.

But Ojha’s analyses of Martian surface features called Recurring Slope lineae (RSL) show water does flow on the surface. The salts in the water act like antifreeze and allow it to be liquid at temperatures below freezing.

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Caption: Recurring Slope Lineae (RSL), on Horowitz Crater in southern hemisphere of Mars (32 degrees south latitude, 141 east longitude), appear as dark streaks about the length of a football field. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Finding water on the surface indicates that water is even more abundant than predicted. This is good news and may expand possible sites for future settlement. Or not. The presence of liquid water also increases the chances of finding alien microbes on Mars. If microbes are confirmed, is that a reason to slow or halt human settlements so as not to contaminate them or be contaminated by them?

The answer to this question depends on the nature of the Martian “bugs” and what they need from their environment to survive. Once we know that, we can determine if our use of, or changes to “their” water or minerals or energy source would be of benefit or harm to them or to us. But just knowing that something can live on Mars as it exists today would be very encouraging to our own long-term survival potential there. After all, our bodies have more microbes than human cells!

Yet I fear that because of our history, going back to the Martian canal controversy (1905), the Viking life science results (1977), and the Martian meteorite (1999), scientists will be reluctant to propose the experiments needed to confirm life on Mars. Who will risk having their career ruined by critics rejecting all data indicating life as illusionary patterns, chemical reactions, equipment artifacts, or contamination? Even if we send humans to Mars to observe microbes in action, someone will claim it is a hoax designed to boost NASA’s budget (which we should do anyway)! Hopefully, young scientists like Ojha will continue their important investigations so we can better prepare for life (native or transplanted) on the Red Planet.

The second printing of Welcome to Mars has been updated with changes to pages 12 and 70 reflecting the discovery of liquid water on Mars. What it means to the future settlers of Mars is up to them to decide!

Writing about Space

If your kids like Welcome to Mars, they might also like The Callahan Kids: Tales of Life on Mars. This is a collection of nine original stories about the first kids (ages 11 to 14) on Mars. All the stories had their science facts checked by engineers. Read the first story (by yours truly) FREE via the link on my website. EBook is $4.99 and print books are $9.00 if you use the 10 percent off code in the right-hand column.

Speaking about Space

Thursday, February 18, evening. Distinguished Lecture, Ohio Space Institute, 22800 Cedar Point Road, Cleveland, OH 44142. Details TBA.

Friday, February 19, Dinner at 6:30. Featured speaker for “Dinner with a Slice of History,” International Women in Air & Space Museum, Burke Lakefront Airport, 1501 North Marginal Road, Cleveland, OH 44114. Tickets $17. Book sales benefit the museum.

First week of March: I’ll be in Indialantic, Florida (near Melbourne) for a family reunion and would love to visit schools, libraries, astronomy clubs, women’s groups, churches, or book clubs to talk about space. Send email with contact info, and I’ll follow up.

Author: Marianne

Marianne Dyson is an award-winning children's author, science fiction writer, and former NASA flight controller. To invite her to speak or order her books, visit her website, www.mDyson.com.