PASADENA (CBS4) – NASA has made an out-of-this world discovery on the planet Mars. Scientists say they have found new evidence of possible saltwater flows on Mars. The discovery was announced at a NASA news conference Thursday.
The observations were made by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter which revealed possible flowing water during the warmest months on Mars.
“NASA’s Mars Exploration Program keeps bringing us closer to determining whether the Red Planet could harbor life in some form,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said, “and it reaffirms Mars as an important future destination for human exploration.”
Alfred McEwen, lead author of the Science study, and his team have been observing Mars using the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. His team has identified features on some Martian slopes that appear to fade in the winter and come back in the spring.
“The best explanation for these observations so far is the flow of briny water,” said McEwen.
The water is expected to be salty because a previous study of the planet discovered salt deposits over much of Mars leading researchers to believe any water flows in the subsurface is going to be salty.
In addition, flows of liquid brine fit the features’ characteristics and briny water has a lower freezing point.
“These dark lineations are different from other types of features on Martian slopes,” said Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project Scientist Richard Zurek of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Repeated observations show they extend ever farther downhill with time during the warm season.”
When researchers checked flow-marked slopes with the orbiter’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), no sign of water appeared. The features may quickly dry on the surface or could be shallow subsurface flows.
“The flows are not dark because of being wet,” McEwen said. “They are dark for some other reason.”
A flow initiated by briny water could rearrange grains or change surface roughness in a way that darkens the appearance. How the features brighten again when temperatures drop is harder to explain.
“It’s a mystery now, but I think it’s a solvable mystery with further observations and laboratory experiments,” McEwen said.
These results are the closest scientists have come to finding evidence of liquid water on the planet’s surface today. Frozen water, however has been detected near the surface in many middle to high-latitude regions.
Fresh-looking gullies suggest slope movements in geologically recent times, perhaps aided by water. Purported droplets of brine also appeared on struts of the Phoenix Mars Lander. If further study of the recurring dark flows supports evidence of brines, these could be the first known Martian locations with liquid water.