The surface of planet Mars

NASA might have just discovered water on Mars

Mars. The Red Planet. Since the dawn of consciousness, mankind has gazed at the stars in wonder and pondered "what lies out there?" In the past, we believed the heavens contained whole pantheons of Gods and celestial beings, but gradually science taught us the exact opposite. The vast, inconceivable cosmos is mostly empty; a cold vacuum devoid of life, and every planet we have turned our gaze to thus far has turned out to be a dead world. As far as we're aware, we are alone. But that hasn't halted our search. On the contrary, it's only served to galvanise scientists into looking more urgently for extraterrestrials, and in all the cosmos, there is one planet which has received more attention than any other: our second-closest neighbour, the planet Mars.

Unfortunately, for all our furtive questing, Mars has turned out to be nothing more than a frigid graveyard. It's not like we haven't tried our hardest; sometimes it feels like we've literally left no stone unturned. But ever since NASA launched the Viking programme, we haven't found so much as one minuscule microbe. The reason why our search has been so fruitless is simple. We're missing a key ingredient; a remarkable chemical compound more precious than any other in the universe. One which, to us, is so mundane and essential that we barely give it a moment's thought. I'm talking, of course, about water. No water: no organic life. It's as simple as that, and there's been no liquid water found on Mars. But now, things might be about to change.

Planet Mars as seen from space. Credit: Pixabay

This new discovery has long since been hypothesised about, but it's only now that evidence has confirmed what astrobiologists and astrogeologists have speculated about: namely that vast reserves of subterranean frozen water ice (as opposed to ice formed through other frozen substances) could be found under the red dust of Mars' surface. Back in 2002, NASA's Odyssey mission conducted a thorough analysis of the planet from orbit and managed to discover evidence of very shallow ground ice particles at high latitudes. In 2008, more tiny deposits of ice were discovered near the Phoenix mission's landing site, but this was thought to be a negligible amount. Now, frozen water has been found on an immense scale.

The latest data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has managed to find thick underground sheets of ice, which geologists believe will be able to tell the space agency more about the changes to the planet's climate during the course of its long history. These huge glacial sheets could be found a mere metre below the surface, and are believed to be approximately 130 metres thick. The team, led by USGS planetary geologist, Colin Dundas, examined eight sites near steep banks where gradual erosion exposed deep layers of rock and ice which even the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's powerful HiRISE camera couldn't detect. Researchers believe that when Mars was tilted on its axis at a steeper angle, many millions of years ago, the mid-latitudes and equatorial regions of the planet would have been cool enough for snowflakes to form in the atmosphere and fall to the ground. Now, however, the planet is too cold for this to happen.

It's theorised that these ice sheets might have formed gradually in layers of fallen snow and frost, which were gradually compacted and hardened into solid ice over many millennia. Furthermore, the lack of meteor craters around these eight sights seems to indicate that the snowfall that caused the ice sheets to form occurred much later than was previously thought. Before now, scientists believed that liquid water disappeared on Mars over 3.5 billion years ago, and not a few million as this new evidence suggests. Furthermore the researchers have observed that the underground ice is slowly surrendering water to the atmosphere through sublimation, and there's evidence to suggest that rocks and sediment are being dislodged from the ice as it recedes, so there is a chance that we might one day have access to Martian water, and that once this material has been totally dislodged, the water will be pure.

"There is shallow ground ice under roughly a third of the Martian surface, which records the recent history of Mars. What we’ve seen here are cross-sections through the ice that give us a 3-D view with more detail than ever before," Dundas stated. The most likely place for life to have one day sprung forth on the surface of Mars is at the site of the Gale crater, located in the northwestern part of the Aeolis quadrangle. This 3.8-billion-year-old site is assumed to be a dry lake which once contained liquid water during the Noachian period. This dry lake is stratified, rich in oxidants, boron, and features many different types of soil environments which would have once been habitable for microorganisms.

The frozen surface of Mars. Credit: Getty

But there is a problem; NASA is also worried that this newly-discovered water could be fast disappearing. Scientists have recently observed that massive Martian dust storms could be destroying the water supply, by picking up ice particles and lifting them into the atmosphere. At a height of more than 50km, ultraviolet light from the sun begins to break down chemical bonds between hydrogen and oxygen in the water. The tilting axis of Mars, which contributed to the extreme drop in temperature, juxtaposed with the loss of water through hydrogen escape, could be what led to the loss of Martian oceans.

NASA is already planning a new mission to visit the Martian surface, the so-called "Mars 2020" rover mission, which is designed to collect and package 31 samples of minerals and soil to bring back to Earth for analysis. Furthermore, Donald Trump has shown a particular interest in spaceflight and endorsing NASA programmes, and has allegedly ordered NASA to begin planning a manned trip to the Red Planet.