Spaceflight Insider

NASA: Forget the hype – today’s Mars is a wet planet

Perspective_view_of_crater_with_water_ice_-_looking_east on Mars ESA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider - Copy

It was announced today, Monday, Sept. 28, that water is flowing on the surface of Mars. Photo Credit: ESA / DLR / FU Berlin / G. Neukum

On Friday, Sept. 25, NASA stated that the agency was going to make a big announcement about a Martian “mystery” that they said had been solved. The agency also declared an embargo on additional information, providing no other details about this proclamation – furthering speculation. The press conference was held on Monday, Sept. 28, at 11:30 a.m. EDT – and promptly deflated some of the more spectacular claims made by some in the media. It turns out that the big announcement is all wet.

The most logical of the claims made over the course of this past weekend was that flowing water had been found on the surface of Mars. The Internet was abuzz with other theories, however. Couple this speculation with the upcoming release of the sci-fi movie The Martian and the frenzy seems to have reached a fevered pitch.

Monday’s conference opened with NASA’s Dwayne Brown saying, hold on to your seats and hats – a man who helped coin the phrase that, at NASA, “science never sleeps”. It should come as no surprise that the discovery NASA teased was one a little less spectacular than a Martian “Stonehenge” having been discovered. Rather, today’s announcement confirmed that Red Planet is the world most like Earth in Solar System. It was announced today that Mars, just like Earth, has water on its surface.

Water oceans on Mars NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Representatives with NASA reiterated that Mars once had oceans in its distant past. Image Credit: NASA

NASA’s Jim Green stated that Mars is not the dry, arid world that it was believed to be just a week ago. Mars is a wet planet, one that might possibly support some forms of life today.

Many images of Martian cliffs taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter seem to show what appears to be dark streaks running down the sides of cliffs. These images were captured near the equator during the warmer summer months. At the time of that discovery in 2013, there was speculation that this may be saltwater from melting ice that evaporates into the thin Martian atmosphere.

Alternative theories about what would be NASA’s big announcement included the discovery of some form of life – most likely, bacteria in the soil. With the high levels of perchlorate in the soil, this seems unlikely. However, there may have been some form of microbial life that has been discovered fossilized in Martian rock. Scientists researching the ALH84001 (Allan Hills 84001) meteorite from Mars claimed to have found microbial fossils in 1996. To date, this discovery remains controversial with scientists continuing to debate the findings.

One of the more fantastical claims about today’s announcement came from the Huffington Post, where the outlet asked if recent structures seen on the Red Planet constituted a “Marshenge“. Some have attempted to claim that these mammoth structures seem to have been set into place by some sort of intelligence.

However, the wildest theory so far has been that NASA will provide photographic evidence of intelligent life found on the planet. Alternative science sites such as the Inquisitr have been hinting at NASA finding life on Mars based on what has been seen in images from the Curiosity rover.

Not since NASA’s 2004 announcement of the discovery of the geological phenomenon known as blueberries – hematite-rich spheres – on the surface of Mars has an announcement about the Red Planet been embargoed to this level. That discovery, while amazing, did not resonate with the public as well as NASA had hoped. The press conference did not present the same urgency as the initial announcement and response to the discovery remained subdued at best.

The space agency did note that, when it comes to conducting science on Mars, there is no substitute for an asset that NASA is hoping to field sometime in the 2030s – astronauts.

“The Mars 2020 rover is similar to Curiosity and, while it has traversed some steep slopes, it would be trivial for an astronaut to cover the same distance,” said NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate John Grunsfeld, a five-time space shuttle veteran himself.

With MRO and the two rovers currently operating on Mars (the other being the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, which has been on the Red Planet since 2004), the agency has the pathfinders in place to survey the terrain. Now, NASA is working to develop the launchers and spacecraft that will ferry the crews there.

“To me, today’s announcement makes it even more imperative that we send astrobiologists and planetary scientists to Mars, to explore the question of, ‘is there current life on Mars?’,” Grunsfeld said.

NASA has repeatedly stated that the agency’s new super heavy-lift booster – the Space Launch System or “SLS” – along with NASA’s new Orion spacecraft are meant to be part of a system of allowing the agency to explore the Solar System. The first crewed flight of Orion is currently scheduled to take place no earlier than 2023.

Video courtesy of JPL


Joe Latrell is a life-long avid space enthusiast having created his own rocket company in Roswell, NM in addition to other consumer space endeavors. He continues to design, build and launch his own rockets and has a passion to see the next generation excited about the opportunities of space exploration. Joe lends his experiences from the corporate and small business arenas to organizations such as Teachers In Space, Inc. He is also actively engaged in his church investing his many skills to assist this and other non-profit endeavors.

Reader Comments

WOW! Confirming Mars is a wet planet.

I think two things contributed to the lukewarm public reaction. One is that when the pictures were released in 2013 showing the slopes with no dark streaks and then with the dark streaks having appeared and grown over time, it just looked flat out like running water, even if it was only ground water making the surface wet, so nobody was shocked that it was confirmed. People were probably more surprised that it wasn’t confirmed already. Another is that we’ve been hearing about water on Mars for 11 years, whether it’s been from Opportunity (some water in the past), Spirit and Curiosity (lots of water in the past), Phoenix (water ice present today) or Mars Global Surveyor, Odyssey, MRO (water features spotted from orbit) or Maven (escape of water from Mars in the past). I think after a while, the general public, and maybe even some of the enthusiasts, are like, “Yeah, we get it, there’s water on Mars. Cool.” It’s unfortunate, but I think it’s also human nature. People are ready for the next step.

I forgot the discovery of significant quantities of perchlorate and salts, lowering the melting point of water on Mars.

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