BTS 061: Mars' Salty Waters and Why We Might Never Touch It

BTS 061: Mars' Salty Waters and Why We Might Never Touch It
Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA

Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA

It was recently announced that NASA had “found” liquid water flows on the surface of Mars.

That is a huge milestone in space exploration, another chapter that marks the progress in understanding our neighbouring red planet, and another tease in the possibility of us colonising Mars one day. But before you pack up your bags and sign up for Mars One, there are still a few details that might interest you.

Firstly, while it may be liquid water flowing downhill during the Martian summers, it is salty. Very salty. So salty that even before Monday’s announcement, past research had already expected that the discovery of liquid water on Mars would likely be brine, another name for incredibly salty water, and it would be too salty for life as we know it (in 2008) to survive and thrive.

But this is 2015, and by now, we discovered that there are organisms that can thrive in some of the harshest conditions on Earth – some closely resembling the inhospitable environments of other worlds. Some of these “extremophiles” can be found in an ice-sealed Antarctic salt lake. That may be an exciting possibility, but it poses another obstacle – one that is self-imposed with responsible foresight.

The activity of exploration usually disregards the impact it has on the environment being explored. For example, trekkers would cut down trees and step on plants while exploring parts unknown. Those actions may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things on Earth, but when it comes to space exploration, our influence may have literally life-changing implications.

Ever since the signing of the 1976 outer space treaty by the world’s space powers, we have pledged to not go near a water source to avoid contamination it with life on Earth. Robots such as the Mars Rover have restrictions placed on them to best minimise any influence that would cause significant impact to the alien environment. In other words, we go to explore and learn the environment as it is – untouched and uncontaminated by elements of Earthly origins.

But this leaves space exploration for life in a very ironic position. NASA’s “findings”, which led them to conclude confidently that there is seasonal liquid water flowing on Mars surface, was deduced using the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (MRO) on-board instrument, known as Crism, that can determine the chemistry of surface materials. Therefore, we have all the facts, just not the physical one, the one that we love most.

While we may use technology such as the MRO and deduce from the facts to reach a definitive conclusion, such as that there is liquid water flowing on the surface of Mars – the Mars Rover and humans may never get to confirm it physically... at least until the space treaty provides an exception. (or is broken, for science?)

It may seem so soon that the flame of enthusiasm is met by the winds of reality to blow it out, at least we can take comfort in the surprisingly responsible stance that we – a species that had ravaged the Earth lands in the spirit of knowledge or greed – had taken. Whatever lives on Earth, stays on Earth… for now…