UB expert weighs in on NASA's news on Mars

Sep 29, 2015

NASA's announcement that they have evidence of still-existing liquid water on Mars raised eyebrows Monday, as well as renewed hopes that life might still be possible on the Red Planet. A local expert says the best chance of finding it there is by digging deeper.

The presence of ice on Mars has been long known. But on Monday, NASA scientists announced that the planet also appears to have streams of salty water, flowing down certain Martian slopes during its summer period.

The dark streaks in the slope in the foreground are believed to be caused by flowing salty water, NASA scientists explained Monday.
Credit NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

What has scientists excited is that the evidence of liquid water renews hopes of discovering life on Mars. Dr. Tracy Gregg, associate professor of geology at the University at Buffalo, suggests the water on the Martian surface may be similar to compounds known on Earth that are unfriendly to life. Her belief is that if there's life, it will be found far below the surface, deeper than where probes such as Curiosity may reach.

"I personally think that there's stuff there," Dr. Gregg said in a phone interview with WBFO. "It's just going to be so far below the surface that we're not going to get to it easily. It's probably kilometers beneath the surface."

The thought of liquid water reaching the surface has Dr. Gregg and others hopeful for future exploration missions. As harsh as the environment may be on Mars, with its very cold with a very thin atmosphere, microbes have proven their ability to survive in severe climates here on Earth.

Dr. Tracy Gregg, associate professor of geology at the University at Buffalo.
Credit courtesy buffalo.edu

"There are bacteria that live at mid-ocean ridge hydrothermal vents, where the temperatures are hundreds of degrees Celsius," Dr. Gregg said. "There are bacteria that live in thermal pools in Yellowstone, and in acidic waters."

Mars is not the only place in the Solar System where scientists are eyeballing the possible existence of water. It was recently reported that evidence now points to the presence of a global liquid water ocean beneath the icy surface of Jupiter's moon Europa and a giant water ocean beneath the ice of Saturn's moon Enceladus. Also intriguing are the images sent back by the space probe New Horizons which hint of glacier-like ice on far-off Pluto.

"We even find water on the poles of Mercury and on the poles of the Moon, places that are supposed to be dry yet they still retain water ice," said Dr. Gregg. "I think there's a paradigm shift going, from Earth being the only place in the Solar System where you can find a habitable ocean, to a more broader way of thinking about where there are pockets of liquid water - or even solid water ice - that can be utilized by both microbes and possibly as resources for future human astronauts."