Start packing your freeze-dried pumpkin spice latte space snacks now: On Monday (Sept. 28), NASA scientists finally confirmed that there is indeed liquid water on the surface of Mars.
This is a huge deal -- and not just for stargazers still editing down the gigabyte of Supermoon pics they took last night. It's major because while scientists have long known our closest planetary friend has water in the form of ice on its surface, this is the best evidence to date that liquid, flowing water exists on Mars' face.
For context: The average temperature on Mars is around -80 degrees Fahrenheit, which is great for ice, but not so great for liquid H2O. But on a balmy summer day, the temperature can spike up to near 70 degrees near the planet's equator.
According to an article in Nature Geoscience (titled, of course, "Spectral Evidence For Hydrated Salts In Recurring Slope Lineae On Mars"), NASA scientists used the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's imaging spectrometer to figure out what was behind the weird, dark streaks that they first noticed on Mars' surface in 2010.
Turns out the Recurring Slope Lineae they found are made up of mineral salts that can suck up moisture, and that flowing water is probably the reason they look the way they do when they appear in the spring. Monday's announcement marked the first time scientists could share this exciting new information about the data they've been gathering for several years. The water in these slope lineae is likely very briny and undrinkable, but one scientist said it is imperative to find out the source of this water to see if it can be used by future visitors from Earth.
During the NASA briefing on Monday morning, one scientist said there once was a lot of water on Mars, but a catastrophic event changed that millions of years ago. We know this because landers have driven over dried up former lake beds that were probably fed by rain, though there is no liquid precipitation on the planet now.
"There are plenty of resources on Mars ... crucial to life," a NASA spokesperson said, though, ticking off the critical elements in its atmosphere and surface that could potentially sustain human visitors in the future. In fact, the next Mars Rover 2020 lander will have an experiment that can take in carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and extract the oxygen -- one small step toward making the planet more habitable for humans.
While we've known there was probably water on Mars for many years, the bottom line is that this new research puts us one Slope Lineae closer to the holy grail of space exploration: finding another planet with the critical life-sustaining feature of water.
Even with extreme genetic engineering, they added, the thin atmosphere on the mountains of Mars makes it impossible to grow anything on the surface now, but there is plenty of carbon dioxide, humidity and water resources to grow food inside an inflatable greenhouse.
As for the most pressing question of the day: Is there any form of life now on Mars? Well, kind of. The presence of the RSL means that we now know where to look on Mars for possible life, and that it could have supported life at one point, but we'd have to get boots on the ground to actually find it, or find out where it used to live.