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NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

There's Liquid Water on Mars

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

In the image above, do you see those dark, narrow streaks flowing downhill on the steep slopes at Mars's Horowitz crater? Scientists say they provide definitive evidence of water flowing on the red planet. The findings were published today in the journal Nature Geoscience. NASA also held a press conference today to discuss the discovery.

That they might represent water flow has been suspected for several years. In 2011, a team of researchers working on the University of Arizona's HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment), an imaging system aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), hypothesized that these streaks, known as recurring slope lineae, or RSLs, might be evidence of intermittent salty water flows that change with the seasons: 

The current research team (which includes planetary scientists from HiRISE, a few U.S. universities, NASA, and a French research center) combined the HiRISE documentation of RSLs—which were subsequently found at dozens of sites—with spectral data from the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), an instrument also onboard the MRO.

RSLs have low reflectance compared to the surrounding terrain, and they appear to get larger during warm seasons. The team analyzed at what wavelengths these RSLs absorb light, and then compared their abilities to absorb different wavelengths to those of minerals on Earth. The closest matches were magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate, and sodium perchlorate—hydrated salts, which were detected at four locations during the seasons when RSLs are most extensive.

"Our findings strongly support the hypothesis that recurring slope lineae form as a result of contemporary water activity on Mars," the researchers write. They don't know where the water originates, or how it formed; the favored theory is that it's the result of deliquescence, in which salts absorb moisture from the atmosphere to create liquid water. This water is likely much saltier than our oceans.

Here are two views of slopes where hydrated salts were detected.

Dark narrow streaks known as recurring slope lineae emanating out of the walls of Garni crater on Mars. The dark streaks here are up to few hundred meters in length. Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Planetary scientists have detected hydrated salts on these slopes at Hale crater. The blue color seen upslope of the dark streaks are thought not to be related to their formation, but instead are from the presence of the mineral pyroxene. This is a false-color image. Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

What are the implications of this discovery? Potential life on Mars, of course; either native life—which if it does exist is likely microbial and subsurface—or human life, in the future, as part of a manned Mars mission. 

As for Martian life, "I think it’s likely there’s life in the crust of Mars—microbes," said University of Arizona planetary geologist and study co-author Alfred McEwen, speaking at the press conference from Nantes, France. "To me, the chances of life being in the subsurface of Mars has always been very high."

But as Mars Exploration Program lead scientist Michael Meyer noted, “We have only one example of life, and that is us. We don’t know how it started, and so one of the things we found at Mars is that it could have supported life. But we don’t know how life started here, so we don’t know if it’s possible for life to start on Mars.”

As for the possibility of human life on Mars, "these observations are giving us a much better view that Mars has resources that are useful to future travels," said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. For one thing, he noted, there's the potential to make rocket fuel (which is commonly made from liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen). "The exciting thing is that we'll send humans to Mars in the near future," Grunsfeld said.

Before humans ever set foot on the red planet, there are several unmanned missions to Mars on the horizon. Next year, NASA will send the InSight lander to Mars to peer into its interior for the first time. The European Space Agency is launching two ExoMars missions—one in 2016 and the other, in collaboration with the Russian Federal Space Agency, in 2018. And in 2020 NASA's Mars Exploration Program continues with the launch of another rover, which will collect samples and bring them back to Earth.

Because the slopes featuring these briny water flows are steep, they're not good landing places for rovers. Nimble-footed astronauts, on the other hand, might one day be able to make the climb for a closer look.

"We are on a journey to Mars, and science is leading the way. Each time we learn something new about Mars, Mars becomes more and more interesting," Grunsfeld said. "I think it's going to provide us with a great sense of our place in the universe and our solar system in particular."

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Space
9 Compelling Facts About Neptune
NASA
NASA

Neptune is like a celestial paint swatch: a stunning royal blue that demands attention. The eighth planet in the solar system, it is one half of the ice-giant system (the other half being Uranus), and among the most mysterious worlds circling our Sun. Mental Floss spoke to Mark Hofstadter, a planetary scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, to learn more about this lesser-known planet. Here are a few things you might not know.

1. IT HAS SIX RINGS AND 14 MOONS, ONE OF WHICH HAS GEYSERS BLASTING INTO SPACE.

Neptune is about 30 times farther than we are from the Sun (2.8 billion miles to our 93 million miles)—the farthest in the solar system (aside from the dwarf planets). Its effective temperature, according to NASA, is -353°F. Its mass is 17.1 times that of Earth, and it's big (but not Jupiter big), with an equatorial radius of 15,300 miles. Neptune is circled by six rings and has 14 moons, one of which is geologically active and blasting geysers into space. (Plumes are ideal for sampling; rather than building a lander, you can just fly a science spacecraft right through them.) A Neptunian day is short, at 16.11 hours long, but its years are a different story.

2. IN 2011, HUMANITY MARKED NEPTUNE'S "FIRST" BIRTHDAY.

It is impossible to see Neptune with the naked eye. Galileo first recorded its existence with his telescope, though he identified it as a star, misled by its slow orbit. In the 19th century, astronomers noticed an aberration in the orbit of Uranus, and Urbain Joseph Le Verrier, a French mathematician, went to work on the problem. With a pen and paper, he worked out not only the existence of a planet, but also its mass and position. In 1846, Johann Gottfried Galle made the observation at the request of Le Verrier, and sure enough, found a planet. A couple of weeks later, he also observed Triton, Neptune's largest moon.

It took 165 years for a full Neptunian year to elapse. That's why we celebrated Neptune's "first" birthday in 2011.

3. IT'S CALLED AN ICE GIANT … BUT IT DOESN'T HAVE MUCH ICE.

Hofstadter tells Mental Floss that until the Voyager 2 spacecraft visited Neptune and Uranus in the late 1980s, the two planets were thought to be small Jupiters. "It turns out they are fundamentally different than Jupiter," he says. "They are around two-thirds water by mass, and then they have some rock and an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium."

The "ice" in "ice giants" refers to their formation in the interstellar medium. "When modeling the formation of the solar system, things are more or less sorted into three categories: gas, rock, or ice," says Hofstadter. In interstellar space, helium or hydrogen will not exist as a solid or liquid, so they are the gases. They form planets like Jupiter. Silicates and irons, meanwhile, are solid, and exist as dust particles blown out from such things as supernovae. They form places like Earth. Then there are "in between" molecules, such as water, methane, or ammonia. Depending on the local temperatures and pressure, they might be water vapor or solid ice. Those are called—you guessed it—the ices.

"When planetary scientists found that, wow, Neptune and Uranus seem to be mostly stuff like water and methane, they called them 'ice giants,'" Hofstadter explains. But the name is misleading, because today there is very little ice in those planets. "When they formed, the water was probably coming in as ice," he says. "Now, however, it's hot enough in the interior that almost all of the water there is liquid."

Neptune's blue hue? That's due to the methane in its atmosphere.

4. IT HAS A SOLID CORE SURROUNDED BY AN OCEAN. THE REST IS A MYSTERY.

… but not liquid water like you find on Earth. The interior structures of Neptune and Uranus are among the biggest questions facing planetary scientists today. The conventional thinking is that there is a rocky core at each of their centers, surrounded by an extensive region of ocean. A hydrogen and helium atmosphere comprises the outer layer. "There's a lot of atmosphere to get through before you hit the ocean," says Hofstadter. "It is deep enough that it is under extremely high pressure and temperatures. It is probably a highly reactive ionic ocean." The water exists in what is called a supercritical state: "It doesn't behave in the same way that water in our oceans behave. It's probably conducting and has a lot of free electrons in it."

5. NEPTUNE'S FORMATION IS ONE OF THE GREAT CELESTIAL UNKNOWNS.

When planets form, solids first come together. When a solid ball gets big enough, it can gravitationally trap gas—and there's a lot more gas around than there is rock. Hydrogen is the most abundant thing in the universe. "Once you get a rocky core that's big enough to trap gas, a planet can grow very rapidly and can grow very big," says Hofstadter. In the inner solar system, where there was not as much gas, or ices were not solid, you got the terrestrial planets. In the outer solar system, where there was rock and solid ice, large cores formed quickly and started sucking up all the gas around them. That's how you get monster planets like Jupiter and Saturn.

How this relates to Neptune (and Uranus): A star, as it is forming, has a phase during which it has a tremendously strong stellar wind and effectively blows away all the gas. "If Jupiter and Saturn had been in an environment with an endless supply of gas, they would have grown big enough to eventually become stars," says Hofstadter. "But the idea is, the Sun kind of turned on and blew away all the gas, and Jupiter and Saturn had their growth cut off."

Neptune and Uranus have large cores big enough to trap gas. So the question is, why didn't they become like Jupiter and Saturn? "Jupiter and Saturn are 80 percent gas, by mass. Why are Uranus and Neptune something like 10 percent gas? Why didn't they trap more?"

The first theory involves luck. "The idea is, well, for Uranus and Neptune, their cores got big enough to trap gas precisely at the time when the Sun started blowing away all the gas. There wasn't enough, and they couldn't trap more," Hofstadter says. It's possible that could happen once or perhaps twice in a solar system's formation, explaining Uranus and Neptune. But the study of exoplanets have upended this thinking. "When you look around in our galaxy and see how many ice giants there are, it's hard to believe that every solar system out there was lucky enough to have planets forming large cores just as their stars started blowing away all the gas," he points out. "So this is a fundamental question: How do ice giants form? And we don't understand."

6. NEPTUNE'S RINGS ARE CLUMPY.

Unlike the rings of Saturn, the six Neptunian rings are thin, young, and dark. Their color is due to their composition: radiation-processed organic material. One of the rings features three thick, distinct clumps named Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. The clumps are something of a mystery: The laws of physics dictate that they should be spread out evenly, as you see at Uranus, but there they are, little lumps in space. (Before Voyager 2 visited, only the clumps were visible, and were called arcs, part of an incomplete ring.) The most likely cause for the ring irregularity is gravitational meddling by the moon Galatea.

7. MORE ABOUT THAT MOON WITH GEYSERS …

Triton, Neptune's largest moon, is thought to be something like Pluto: an object from the Kuiper Belt (the ring of icy bodies beyond Neptune). "It happened to be gravitationally captured by Neptune," says Hofstadter. "It is a fascinating object to study because it's a Kuiper Belt object, but it's also interesting because it is active. We see a lot of geology on Triton just like we see on Pluto. When Voyager flew by—in just a few minutes—it happened to see geysers spouting off."

When Triton was captured into orbit around Neptune—you can see it circling the planet in the video above—it caused all the native Neptunian satellites to be destroyed. They either impacted Neptune and were absorbed, or they were ejected from the Neptunian system.

8. IT HAS A "GREAT DARK SPOT."

Just as Jupiter has a Great Red Spot, Neptune has a Great Dark Spot. They are both anticyclonic storms, though while Jupiter's spot is centuries old, Neptune's spot is short lived. It seems to come and go. Notably, the Great Dark Spot even generated stunning white clouds over Neptune much in the way that cirrus clouds form from cyclones on Earth.

9. WE'VE BEEN THERE ONCE BUT WANT TO GO BACK.

Only one spacecraft has visited Neptune: Voyager 2, in 1989. The photo of Neptune at top was taken during that mission; in fact, it's likely the source of any image of Neptune you've ever seen. Pretty much everything scientists know about the world comes from that flyby, and from telescopic observation. The James Webb Space Telescope [PDF], which launches in 2019, will unlock new ice-giant science, including mapping cloud structures, observing auroras, and studying post-impact atmospheric dynamics.

Some things, however, such as a detailed atmospheric composition or a study of its satellites, can only be done by a spacecraft at the system. Planetary scientists are today developing flagship-class missions to visit both Neptune and Uranus. An ice-giants mission is considered a top priority of the planetary science community, after a Mars sample return mission and a Europa orbiter. Mars 2020, which launches in its namesake year, is a sample-caching rover (returning those samples to Earth awaits a future mission); meanwhile, the Europa Clipper was approved by NASA and is well into development. That puts Neptune and Uranus next in line. A mission to these planets would have to launch no later than 2034 lest their orbits place them beyond easy reach.

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Space Dust, Not an Alien Megastructure, Is to Blame for Star's Bizarre Behavior
NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA/JPL-Caltech

Space is filled with unsolved mysteries, but rarely do they rivet astronomers and sci-fi fans the way KIC 8462852 has. In 2015, researchers announced that the distant star's light had periodically waned over the course of several years (once by as much as 22 percent), prompting some to theorize that a type of power-harnessing "alien megastructure" could be the culprit. This explanation was largely dismissed, but scientists still didn't know what caused the star's bizarre behavior. Now, Space.com reports that space dust is likely responsible for the mysterious phenomenon.

Published in the journal The Astrophysical Journal Letters [PDF], a new study of KIC 8462852's behavior "shows that different colors of light are being blocked at different intensities," said Tabetha Boyajian, an astronomer at Louisiana State University and the study's lead author, in a statement. "Therefore, whatever is passing between us and the star is not opaque, as would be expected from a planet or alien megastructure."

KIC 8462852 sits 1500 light-years away from Earth, and is about 50 percent larger and 1000 degrees hotter than the Sun, according to scientists. It's nicknamed "Tabby's star" after Boyajian, who first observed its unusual flickering pattern in 2011 while perusing data from NASA's Kepler Space Telescope with a team of citizen scientists from the online Planet Hunters group. Boyajian and several of the group's members published a paper in 2015 that detailed KIC 8462852's waning and waxing brightness over the course of four years. The data puzzled scientists around the world.

KIC 8462852's otherwise consistent flux was interrupted by sporadic—and substantial—dips in light. Planets can cross in front of distant stars and occlude their light, but even transiting Jupiter-sized planets typically cause a dip of less than 1 percent. In KIC 8462852's case, the difference was up to 22 percent. Further adding to scientists' confusion, KIC 8462852 is an older star that isn't surrounded by the dust and debris from its formation, which can obscure a star's shine.

Theories for the star's behavior ranged from telescope malfunctions to comet fragments moving in an elliptical orbit around the star. Another hypothesis was that a dusty debris disk could be enveloping a black hole located between KIC 8462852 and Earth, National Geographic reports.

Meanwhile, Penn State astronomer Jason Wright hypothesized that alien megastructures, otherwise known as Dyson Spheres, could be harvesting energy from KIC 8462852. (This idea was swiftly debunked.)

To find some answers, Boyajian and colleagues performed follow-up research from March 2016 to December 2017 that was funded through a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $100,000. Using ground telescopes provided by Las Cumbres Observatory in Goleta, California (and numerous volunteer telescopes around the world), they noted four additional instances in which KIC 8462852 dimmed for stretches of time ranging from days to weeks, according to Gizmodo. (Kickstarter supporters even got to name these instances.)

So far, real-time data from this new study suggests that space dust (perhaps the fragments of a recently destroyed planet or moon) is the likely answer for KIC 8462852's unusual flickering. But no conclusive results have been reached quite yet. For now, the star will continue to stymie scientists. At least they can finally eliminate the phrase "alien megastructure" from their vocabularies.

[h/t Space.com]

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