Water on Mars: So What?

SCIENCE

A new find of liquid water fuels hopes that life may yet exist on the Red Planet. (Nat Geo News)

Plot the new Martian streams on our beautiful Martian map! (Just click to download it!)

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit.

This series of images shows warm-season features on Mars’ Newton Crater that might be evidence of salty liquid water. Photographs by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

This series of images shows warm-season features on Mars’ Newton Crater that might be evidence of salty liquid water.
Photographs by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Martian maps can be a little disorienting, at first! Never fear, your best orienteering landmark is one of the biggest canyons in the solar system, the gorgeous Valles Marineris, visible at the far right of this map. The background coloring on this map corresponds to concentrations of subsurface water: Blue, at high latitudes north and south, indicates higher concentrations of water ice, while orange indicates lower concentrations. White squares mark locations of small, fresh impact craters that exposed water ice close to the Martian surface. Red squares mark probable locations of chloride. Such salt deposits could have resulted from evaporation of salty water. Blue squares mark locations of Mars’ so-called “seasonal seeps.” Researchers think that these features may result from action of briny water. Map courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/UA/LANL/MSSS

Martian maps can be a little disorienting, at first! Never fear, your best orienteering landmark is one of the biggest canyons in the solar system, the gorgeous Valles Marineris, visible at the far right of this map. The background coloring on this map corresponds to concentrations of subsurface water: Blue, at high latitudes north and south, indicates higher concentrations of water ice, while orange indicates lower concentrations. White squares mark locations of small, fresh impact craters that exposed water ice close to the Martian surface. Red squares mark probable locations of chloride. Such salt deposits could have resulted from evaporation of salty water. Blue squares mark locations of Mars’ so-called “seasonal seeps.” Researchers think that these features may result from action of briny water.
Map courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/UA/LANL/MSSS

Discussion Ideas

  • What are Mars’ “seasonal seeps”?

 

  • What do scientists think is the source of Mars’ seasonal seeps?
    • Probably the Martian atmosphere. In a process called deliquescence, “salts on the surface can absorb atmospheric water vapor and trap it in their crystal structures. Then, when the crystals warm up, they dissolve. The whole liquidy mix surrenders to the tug of gravity, and off it goes, tumbling downhill.”
      • Other, less exotic possibilities include an underground aquifer or a buried ice field that thaws with the season. (No, the Martian ice cap is not melting.)

 

  • Why is the identification of liquid water so important?
    • The possibility of extraterrestrial life. According to Nat Geo, “What we know so far, based on the single example of Earth, is that life tends to show up wherever there’s water. That’s why NASA’s search for life beyond Earth has been driven by the mantra, ‘Follow the water.’”
    • Why water?
      • Water is [one of] our only naturally occurring inorganic liquids, the only one not arising from organic growth.
      • Water dissolves just about anything.
      • Water is the only chemical compound that occurs naturally on Earth’s surface in all three physical states: solid, liquid, and gas. Good thing, otherwise the hydrological cycle that most living things rely on to ferry water from the oceans to the land and back again would not exist.
      • Water also has an extremely large liquid range. Pure water freezes at 0°C (32°F) and boils at 100°C (212°F). Add salt and you can lower the freezing temperature. Add pressure and you can raise the boiling temperature. . . [This means that temperatures] can undergo extreme variations—between night and day, say, or between seasons—without water freezing or boiling away.
      • Unlike most other liquids when they freeze, water expands and becomes less dense. [Frozen water floats, not sinks.] If it sank, ice, being unable to melt because of the insulating layer of water above it, would slowly fill up lakes and oceans in cold climates, making sea life in those parts of the world a challenging prospect.
      • Water plays another key role in the biochemistry of life: bending enzymes. Enzymes are proteins that catalyze chemical reactions, making them occur much faster than they otherwise would. To do their handiwork, enzymes must take on a specific three-dimensional shape. Never mind how, but it is water molecules that facilitate this.
    • Why liquid?
      • The biochemical reactions that sustain life need a fluid in order to operate. In a liquid, molecules can dissolve and chemical reactions occur. [Liquid also] effectively conveys vital substances . . . from one place to another, whether it’s around a cell, an organism, an ecosystem, or a planet.

 

TEACHERS’ TOOLKIT

Nat Geo: Water on Mars: What Does It Really Mean?

Nat Geo: Martian Map

NASA: NASA Confirms Evidence That Liquid Water Flows on Today’s Mars

(extra credit!) Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature: Mars

Circled areas mark the general locations of Mars’ seasonal seeps. Use this terrific mapping tool to find Newton, Garni, Horowitz, and Hale craters, and map their precise location using latitude and longitude. Map courtesy USGS Astrogeology Science Center

Circled areas mark the general locations of Mars’ seasonal seeps. Use this terrific mapping tool to find Newton, Garni, Horowitz, and Hale craters, and map their precise location using latitude and longitude.
Map courtesy USGS Astrogeology Science Center

5 responses to “Water on Mars: So What?

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