Water on Mars

August 4th, 2008 | Categories: Science | Tags:

Some discoveries in science and mathematics can be rather technical to say the least, understood and appreciated by relatively few people who have worked for years in some esoteric subject. Other discoveries can touch the imagination of pretty much every one of us. While reading through a collection of news articles on the train this morning I came across one of the latter which caused me to be come so excited that I temporarily forgot that I was British.

I turned to the random woman sat next to me and said in an excited voice “They’ve found water on Mars – beyond a shadow of doubt. They’ve as good as tasted it. Look…” and I presented my phone to her with the news article on it. To be fair to her she did make a show of reading it and nodded in encouragement before moving to a seat far, far away from me.

Over the last few years scientists have tantalised us with various snippets of evidence that point to the possibility of there being water on Mars. For example, back in 2002, NASA Space probe Odyssey discovered large quantities of Hydrogen under the surface of Mars via Gamma Ray Spectrometry. From this data it was inferred that there might be large quantites of water under the Martian surface but no one could be totally sure until a sample of it was scooped up and tested in a laboratory More information concerning the history of discoveries concerning the discovery of water on Mars can be found at this link.

Recently, NASA sent a laboratory to Mars in the form of the Phoenix Mars Lander which scooped up a sample of Martian soil, tested it and confirmed that it did indeed contain water. So now it’s official – Mars has water beyond any doubt which is a very cool scientific fact in my humble opinion.

This news has been spreading through the web like wildfire – and rightly so – but before we get too carried away we need to take a step back and think about what we actually know. (Take the following with a handful of salt – I am not a planetary scientist and, therefore, may be talking rubbish but I have included the links that led me to making these statements)

They have found water but they do not know its chemical composition yet. It may need a lot of processing before it’s drinkable due to a high concentration of salt and acid or it may be as pure as (Earth) snow – we simply don’t know. The answer to this question is important if humans are ever going to visit Mars – they’ll need a drink!

NASA have not detected the signs of life (check out their twitter feed to see what they have to say about this) but the presence of water makes it more statistically likely. That’s more likely not almost certain. If I buy 2 lottery tickets this week then I am more likely to win compared to only buying one (twice as likely in fact – unless I am stupid and choose the same numbers twice!) but I still probably won’t win. Little green men there are not!

Oh but imagine if we did discover life there – how wonderful would it be? We have to face facts – any life we might find would be no more complicated than viruses or bacteria but even that would almost certainly open up a whole new field of biology. They might be completely different to anything he have on Earth – with different biochemistry and everything…or they could look very similar to life here. Who knows? It’s going to be fun finding out though.

For more information – check out Popular Mechanics.

We live in interesting times.

  1. Joshua Zucker
    August 20th, 2008 at 05:51
    Reply | Quote | #1

    I think we’ve known that there’s water ice on Mars for a long time — those polar caps were long known to be a mixture of CO2 and H2O. From Brittanica.com:

    “The composition of the summer remnant caps, particularly the southern one, remains somewhat less certain despite considerable data on their thermal and radiative properties. Measurements by the Viking orbiters showed that the ice of the northern remnant is unquestionably frozen water. Added to this evidence is the large increase in the amount of water vapour detected in the atmosphere over the summer cap. The northern remnant cap, in fact, represents the largest known reservoir of available water on the planet. At the south pole, the carbon dioxide cap does not completely disappear in summer. A small remnant, consisting mostly of carbon dioxide but containing as much as 10 percent water, remains. Measurements by the Mars Express orbiter in 2004 revealed that water ice also is present just below the surface over wide areas around the remnant cap. Almost no water vapour is normally observed in the atmosphere above the southern remnant cap.”

    But it is still cool that the lander scooped up some water ice. Nice spot to land in!

  2. admin
    August 20th, 2008 at 09:23
    Reply | Quote | #2

    Hi Joshua

    Thanks for the extra information – I guess my ignorance of Martian Science really shone through :)
    As you point out though – it’s still cool.