Water (Brine) on Mars

Test for Damp Ground at Mars Streaks Finds None

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Blue dots on this map indicate sites of recurring slope lineae (RSL) in part of the Valles Marineris canyon network on Mars. RSL are seasonal dark streaks that may be indicators of liquid water. The area mapped here has the highest density of known RSL on Mars. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

 

 

Seasonal dark streaks on Mars that have become one of the hottest topics in interplanetary research don’t hold much water, according to the latest findings from a NASA spacecraft orbiting Mars.

The new results from NASA’s Mars Odyssey mission rely on ground temperature, measured by infrared imaging using the spacecraft’s Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS). They do not contradict last year’s identification of hydrated salt at these flows, which since their 2011 discovery have been regarded as possible markers for the presence of liquid water on modern Mars. However, the temperature measurements now identify an upper limit on how much water is present at these darkened streaks: about as much as in the driest desert sands on Earth.

When water is present in the spaces between particles of soil or grains of sand, it affects how quickly a patch of ground heats up during the day and cools off at night.

“We used a very sensitive technique to quantify the amount of water associated with these features,” said Christopher Edwards of Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff. “The results are consistent with no moisture at all and set an upper limit at three percent water.”

The features, called recurring slope lineae or RSL, have been identified at dozens of sites on Mars. A darkening of the ground extends downhill in fingerlike flows during spring or summer, fades away in fall and winter, then repeats the pattern in another year at the same location. The process that causes the streaks to appear is still a puzzle.

“Some type of water-related activity at the uphill end still might be a factor in triggering RSL, but the darkness of the ground is not associated with large amounts of water, either liquid or frozen,” Edwards said. “Totally dry mechanisms for explaining RSL should not be ruled out.”

He and Sylvain Piqueux of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, analyzed several years of THEMIS infrared observations of a crater-wall region within the large Valles Marineris canyon system on Mars. Numerous RSL features sit close together in some parts of the study region. Edwards and Piqueux compared nighttime temperatures of patches of ground averaging about 44 percent RSL features, in the area, to temperatures of nearby slopes with no RSL. They found no detectable difference, even during seasons when RSL were actively growing.

The report of these findings by Edwards and Piqueux has been accepted by the peer-reviewed Geophysical Research Letters and is available online.

There is some margin of error in assessing ground temperatures with the multiple THEMIS observations used in this study, enough to leave the possibility that the RSL sites differed undetectably from non-RSL sites by as much as 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 Celsius degree). The researchers used that largest possible difference to calculate the maximum possible amount of water — either liquid or frozen — in the surface material.

How deeply moisture reaches beneath the surface, as well as the amount of water present right at the surface, affects how quickly the surface loses heat. The new study calculates that if RSL have only a wafer-thin layer of water-containing soil, that layer contains no more than about an ounce of water per two pounds of soil (3 grams water per kilogram of soil). That is about the same concentration of water as in the surface material of the Atacama Desert and Antarctic Dry Valleys, the driest places on Earth. If the water-containing layer at RSL is thicker, the amount of water per pound or kilogram of soil would need to be even less, to stay consistent with the temperature measurements.

Research published last year identified hydrated salts in the surface composition of RSL sites, with an increase during the season when streaks are active. Hydrated salts hold water molecules affecting the crystalline structure of the salt.

“Our findings are consistent with the presence of hydrated salts, because you can have hydrated salt without having enough for the water to start filling pore spaces between particles,” Edwards said. “Salts can become hydrated by pulling water vapor from the atmosphere, with no need for an underground source of the water.”

“Through additional data and studies, we are learning more about these puzzling seasonal features — narrowing the range of possible explanations,” said Michael Meyer. “It just shows us that we still have much to learn about Mars and its potential as a habitat for life.”

The new study touches on additional factors that add to understanding of RSL.

— If RSL were seasonal flows of briny water followed by evaporation, annual buildup of crust-forming salt should affect temperature properties. So the lack of a temperature difference between RSL and non-RSL sites is evidence against evaporating brines.

— Lack of a temperature difference is also evidence against RSL being cascades of dry material with different thermal properties than the pre-existing slope material, such as would be the case with annual avalanching of powdery dust that accumulates from dusty air.

Arizona State University, Tempe, provided and operates the THEMIS camera, which records observations in both infrared and visible-light wavelengths. JPL, a division of Caltech, manages the Mars Odyssey project for NASA. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the orbiter and collaborates with JPL to operate it.

NASA Mars Rover’s Weather Data Bolster Case for Brine

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Scene From ‘Artist’s Drive’ on Mars (Stereo) Curiosity View Ahead Through ‘Artist’s Drive’ (Stereo) Mars Weather-Station Tools on Rover’s Mast Curiosity View Ahead Through ‘Artist’s Drive’Scene From ‘Artist’s Drive’ on Mars The Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover includes temperature and humidity sensors mounted on the rover’s mast. One of the REMS booms extends to the left from the mast in this view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Martian weather and soil conditions that NASA’s Curiosity rover has measured, together with a type of salt found in Martian soil, could put liquid brine in the soil at night.

Perchlorate identified in Martian soil by the Curiosity mission, and previously by NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander mission, has properties of absorbing water vapor from the atmosphere and lowering the freezing temperature of water. This has been proposed for years as a mechanism for possible existence of transient liquid brines at higher latitudes on modern Mars, despite the Red Planet’s cold and dry conditions.

New calculations were based on more than a full Mars year of temperature and humidity measurements by Curiosity. They indicate that conditions at the rover’s near-equatorial location were favorable for small quantities of brine to form during some nights throughout the year, drying out again after sunrise. Conditions should be even more favorable at higher latitudes, where colder temperatures and more water vapor can result in higher relative humidity more often.

“Liquid water is a requirement for life as we know it, and a target for Mars exploration missions,” said the report’s lead author, Javier Martin-Torres of the Spanish Research Council, Spain, and Lulea University of Technology, Sweden, and a member of Curiosity’s science team. “Conditions near the surface of present-day Mars are hardly favorable for microbial life as we know it, but the possibility for liquid brines on Mars has wider implications for habitability and geological water-related processes.”

Fast Facts:

  • Conditions that might produce liquid brine in Martian soil extend closer to the equator than expected
  • Perchlorate salt in soil can pull water molecules from the atmosphere and act as anti-freeze
  • Presence of brine would not make Curiosity’s vicinity favorable for microbes

The weather data in the report published today in Nature Geosciences come from the Cuirosity’s Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS), which was provided by Spain and includes a relative-humidity sensor and a ground-temperature sensor. NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Project is using Curiosity to investigate both ancient and modern environmental conditions in Mars’ Gale Crater region. The report also draws on measurements of hydrogen in the ground by the rover’s Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) instrument, from Russia.

“We have not detected brines, but calculating the possibility that they might exist in Gale Crater during some nights testifies to the value of the round-the-clock and year-round measurements REMS is providing,” said Curiosity Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, one of the new report’s co-authors.

Curiosity is the first mission to measure relative humidity in the Martian atmosphere close to the surface and ground temperature through all times of day and all seasons of the Martian year. Relative humidity depends on the temperature of the air, as well as the amount of water vapor in it. Curiosity’s measurements of relative humidity range from about five percent on summer afternoons to 100 percent on autumn and winter nights.

Air filling pores in the soil interacts with air just above the ground. When its relative humidity gets above a threshold level, salts can absorb enough water molecules to become dissolved in liquid, a process called deliquescence. Perchlorate salts are especially good at this. Since perchlorate has been identified both at near-polar and near-equatorial sites, it may be present in soils all over the planet.

Researchers using the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have in recent years documented numerous sites on Mars where dark flows appear and extend on slopes during warm seasons. These features are called recurring slope lineae, or RSL. A leading hypothesis for how they occur involves brines formed by deliquesence.

“Gale Crater is one of the least likely places on Mars to have conditions for brines to form, compared to sites at higher latitudes or with more shading. So if brines can exist there, that strengthens the case they could form and persist even longer at many other locations, perhaps enough to explain RSL activity,” said HiRISE Principal Investigator Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona, Tucson, also a co-author of the new report.

In the 12 months following its August 2012 landing, Curiosity found evidence for ancient streambeds and a lakebed environment more than 3 billion years ago that offered conditions favorable for microbial life. Now, the rover is examining a layered mountain inside Gale Crater for evidence about how ancient environmental conditions evolved. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Mars Science Laboratory and Mars Reconnaissance Projects for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

For more information about Curiosity, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/msl

and

http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/