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A river runs through it: NASA finds evidence of running water on Mars

NASA hinted this weekend that its team of scientists has solved a major mystery surrounding Mars. Today, the space agency announced that Mars does in fact have seasonal rivers of flowing water, increasing the odds that the planet can sustain some forms of life.  The evidence, published in Nature Geoscience, suggests this water activity is still in existence and not a remnant from the past history of the planet.

The scientists were looking at recurring slope lineae that appear and increase during the warm season, where temperatures can reach as high as 300 Kelvin. These slope lineae appear as long dark streaks, some as long as a football field, on the Martian landscape. Scientists long have speculated the lineae were formed by water, but there was no evidence to support this claim until now.

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Using an imaging spectrometer on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), scientists studying these slope lineae found evidence that suggest the presence of hydrated salts where the slope lineae are at their largest. This correlation suggests flowing water is responsible for their creation and expansion. According to this model, water flows from the canyons and crater walls during the warmer summer months, likely a shallow subsurface flow of briny water that deposits hydrated salts and stains the area. Scientists are not sure where the water originates, but it may rise up from underground sources or condense from the atmosphere like a rain.

Liquid is key to life on Mars and increases the odds that the planet may contain some form of life. Running water also may play an important role in the future colonization of the planet.

“It seems that the more we study Mars, the more we learn how life could be supported and where there are resources to support life in the future,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program.