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December 07, 2006

Blue Mars

Busy finishing a chapter of something, so not much time, but for those of you who have asked me what I think about the reports of possible liquid water on Mars: Naturally I think that's very cool. I was chatting with a friend about it yesterday prior to the press conference, and he said that he'd heard that they were going to say they'd found recent evidence of liquid water on Mars. My response was to note that "recent" means something different to scientists than to the rest of the world, particularly if the scientist is a geologist by training. But in this case "recent" is well within normal understanding of the term: Five years or so.

If it all checks out, it is deeply exciting news, and it also makes me glad i'm still in the process of revising the second edition of The Rough Guide to the Universe, so I can slip in this little exciting tidbit. I have to say that Mars was the bane of my existence when I wrote the first edition of the book, because every time I finished the chapter, they'd find something new and I would have to do a rewrite. It doesn't look like NASA is going to make it any easier for me this time, either. I am both annoyed and terribly happy about this.

There are more pictures and NASA commentary here,
for all the rest of you astronomy geeks.

Posted by john at December 7, 2006 10:54 AM

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Chang, who gets nothing done without BRAINZ | December 7, 2006 11:27 AM

This is so awesome and makes me so happy. It also makes me annoyed because it makes my own process of writing something to do with Mars harder. But I suspect the fact I have NO TIME to write now is more of a direct problem than water on Mars.

Charles Winder | December 7, 2006 11:28 AM

I'm skeptical about the whole flowing water thing. Isn't it freakin' cold up there, like *way* below freezing?

If they're basing this claim on just those fuzzy pictures from the surface, then I'd say it's just as likely to be some sort of periodic non-water-related soil movement, like rock slides. That's pretty steep terrain, without any nice vegetation to anchor the soil in place. Erosion happens, even without water.

Not that water in some form couldn't be involved, but it just seems premature to declare raging torrents of water. Of course, I'd love to be proven wrong.

John Scalzi | December 7, 2006 11:33 AM

Charles Winder:

"I'd say it's just as likely to be some sort of periodic non-water-related soil movement, like rock slides. That's pretty steep terrain, without any nice vegetation to anchor the soil in place."

If I recall correctly, the NASA folks aren't discounting that as a possibility but said that the best explanation for what they see is liquid water. This is addressed in the article I linked to.

It is indeed cold on Mars; the air pressure is also extremely low, which means the water would be both freezing and boiling as it gushed out of the ground. Which would be very cool to see, frankly.

Eddie | December 7, 2006 12:11 PM

It'd be great if there was water underground on Mars.

More especially since we are apt to be running out down here on Spaceship Earth.

Chang, who gets nothing done without BRAINZ | December 7, 2006 12:17 PM

Eddie: More especially since we are apt to be running out down here on Spaceship Earth.

uh, explain this? If we are running out, where is it going? Space? I mean, the amount of potable water may be decreasing due to pollution, but I'm not sure it's excactly running out.

Jon Marcus | December 7, 2006 12:22 PM

Very cool if true. But I'd like to see it from a more scientific bent than the WaPo provides. I don't quite understand how the water would break through an "ice dam" if it was freezing (and boiling!) as it reached the surface...

And on the other hand...Mars pr0n! Did anyone else thing the plain that takes up the majority of that shot looks like guy's chest, with the spot in the middle looking like a nipple?

Or was it just my overtired brain doing weird pattern matching? Never mind...going back to work now.

Mary | December 7, 2006 12:24 PM

Tim F. at Balloon Juice is discussing this. Beware the occasional frothing troll, but there's some good stuff there nonetheless.

Steve Buchheit | December 7, 2006 12:50 PM

I think I also remember something about how in the first few inches from the surface of Mars temperatures could get very warm.

Eddie | December 7, 2006 01:09 PM

We are not truly about to run out of water.

However the pure,clean,good for humans to drink and allow to come into contact with our skin sort of water is going to get expensive and more scarce.

The water bill I get from the city where I live already has a warning about toxic chemicals being present in measurable quantities right now.

The government's plan for this crisis?Put a warning in my water bill.And nothing. No steps being taken.

More than a million thirsty humans in central Texas drink the same water I do.

Hope that Mars water tastes good.

Captain Button | December 7, 2006 01:09 PM

Now I'm having flashbacks to Robinson Crusoe on Mars


Any word on those rocks you can burn for oxygen?

Jon Marcus | December 7, 2006 02:37 PM

Eddie, what city are you in? There's an awful lot of people living in desert areas in the southwestern US. Sooner or later (and probably sooner) we're going to find out that deserts really can't support lots of people.

For what it's worth, it sounds like that Martian water is pretty salty. If you want that, there are oceans (or at least Gulfs) of the stuff available much closer.

Of course there are lakes of fresh water not much farther away (as compared to Mars anyway). I expect fighting over Great Lakes water rights to get pretty intense over the next few decades...

Eddie | December 7, 2006 02:50 PM

Jon Marcus I am in Austin.The water comes from the lower Colorado River.That's not the one that flows through the Grand Canyon but the "other" Colorado that strangely enough mostly lies inside Texas.

Beautiful river.A few nasty hydrocarbons starting to show up though.Sucks.

James Nicoll | December 7, 2006 03:05 PM

"I'm skeptical about the whole flowing water thing. Isn't it freakin' cold up there, like *way* below freezing?"

Mars' surface temperatures range between about 135 K to nearly 300 K.

marrije | December 7, 2006 03:38 PM

Thanks for your thoughts! It was a real treat to see the NASA guy who did the announcement on tv yesterday - he was just bursting with pride & excitement, very sweet.

Blaine | December 7, 2006 03:47 PM

For those who don't do Kelvin...

Mars surface temps range from -130 to +40F...Plenty warm enough for liquid water to run on the surface.

As was stated earlier, the atmospheric pressure is to low for water to remain liquid and it immediately boils to a gas. This is not an instantaneous process and threfore the water has time to cause erosion before it all evaporates.

The real interesting point here is that if it is liquid water (safe bet) then that means our estimates for the amounts of subsurface water have been far too low. Meaning that IF life (probably unicellular) had ever arisen on Mars then it would have stood a sporting chance of surviving into the present.

In addition, greater amounts of water on Mars is very useful when considering possible colonization. Water is necessary for supporting our own form of biology and it can be used as a component for making rocket from "off-the land" instead of hauling it around the inner planets.

Very cool.

Blaine | December 7, 2006 03:49 PM

Edit: "making rocket fuel"

hate it when my brain runs faster than the fingers....

Nathan | December 7, 2006 04:33 PM

O.K., so someone please correct me since I'm certain I'm wrong.

1. Wouldn't the most likely reason for a liquid to come to the surface be thermal activity below the surface or some other means of applying pressure that brings the liquid to the surface? and then

2. Wouldn't that cause the liquid to erupt (be spewed) as opposed to gently rising to the surface and flowing? and then

3. wouldn't that eruption dissipate quite rapidly (even more so because of lower surface gravity)?

Like I said above, since the NASA guys are excited, I'm sure I've either missed something here or just have it totally wrong.

Anyone care to edimucate me?

Nikitta | December 8, 2006 06:14 AM

Jon Marcus: If you brain is overtired, then so is mine. I saw it too.

Fred Kiesche | December 8, 2006 07:48 PM

NASA TV is rebroadcasting the press conference a couple times a day (look for a show called something like "Video Log" plus "This Week at NASA"). I think the JPL site has "podcasts" of a couple of the scientists as well.

Boulders and other landslide like events have been seen, but this is different from those. Those kind of events tend to leave dark trails, these leave light trails. The evidence is that water on Mars is salty (see the Rover results), that would dry as a bright trail. Also, from tests, the amount of water they are talking about ("several swimming pools worth" I think was the quote), it could take several hours to evaporate/boil away at that air pressure.

Look at pictures from Europa and other moons that have signs of water. The surface of those bodies is renewed and it is pretty well accepted that on occasion you get open water before fault lines freeze over again.

I think it was in Oliver Morton's excellent book on Mars that he spends a good chunk of a chapter talking about the possibility of water underground. Pretty amazing stuff.

Fred Kiesche | December 8, 2006 07:49 PM

Second edition of "Rough Guide"? Is there a estimate on publication (I have the first edition in my "shopping basket" at Amazon, but if it is about to become massively obsolete, I'll wait a bit!

Josh Jasper | December 9, 2006 07:13 AM

The diagnosis is in. You have a cold sore on your lip. Carmx, and no kissing until it heals up and goes away.

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