NASA’s MAVEN project reacts to water on Mars

Contact CUIndependent News Staff Writer Cay Leytham-Powell at caitlyn.leythampowell@colorado.edu.

The news immediately captured public imagination — within minutes of the announcement that liquid water had been found on Mars, media outlets exploded with reactions from scientists and the general public alike. It was exciting, but according to the scientists, not all that surprising.

“The results weren’t surprising in the sense that we suspected that these features were due to the presence of liquid water,” Dr. Bruce Jakosky, the principal investigator of NASA’s MAVEN mission to Mars, said. “But that doesn’t make them any less important — having measurements that tell us directly what these features are is much more important than having a guess or speculating as to their cause,”

Dr. Dave Brain is the co-investigator of the MAVEN mission and, like Jakosky, a CU professor. He echoed Jakosky’s sentiment:

“What is particularly exciting with this new information is that this direct evidence supported the scientists’ leading hypothesis so clearly. There is no longer any confusion as to what caused those dark spots. Rather, this new information shifts the mystery away from what it is to how it got there. This is a question that possibly points to what research could be coming next for the red planet.”

The water was discovered by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The MRO first landed on the red planet in 2006, with the main mission of studying the possibility of water in Mars’ past. As part of this, it was announced on Sept. 28, 2015 that dark streaks on the planet’s surface gave the MRO definitive evidence that liquid water exists there.

The streaks appear to ebb and flow over time, much like water on Earth. There had been long-term speculation that liquid water might exist on Mars; what made this research special was that it was able to, for the first time, provide proof supporting that hypothesis. This has many jumping toward the inevitable question — can Mars support life?

“It’s the obvious conclusion to reach, but it’s not clear that it’s correct — it raises the question more than answering it,” Jakosky said. “Liquid water is thought to be necessary for life to exist, and this is, to my mind, a clear detection of liquid water.  But it’s there as a transient phase, not long lived. And it’s in a form that is extremely salty and not conducive to easily supporting life like we have on earth.”

Current research from the MRO states that it is currently unknown whether the water has existed long enough to have ever supported life.

While not directly connected to this newest discovery, the MAVEN mission is equally important for NASA. Its purpose is to look at Mars’ past climate by exploring the upper atmosphere, and the interactions between the sun and the solar weather of Mars. It will give insight into the past climatic activity of Mars, the potential for atmospheric water on Mars and its possible past habitability.

“These results are an important advance in our developing an understanding of how Mars works,” Jakosky said. “They’re not an end in themselves, but they’re an important step along the way.”

Caitlyn Leytham-Powell

Cay is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Media and Public Engagement, with an emphasis in science and environmental communication. In addition, Cay has her bachelor's degree in Biology and Human-Environment Relations, and has worked in multiple sectors of the environmental industry.

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