Briny Water May Pool in Mars' Equatorial Soil

Mars may be a frigid desert, but perchlorate salts in the planet’s soil are lowering the freezing temperature of water, setting up conditions for liquid brines to form at equatorial regions.

Mars may be a frigid desert, but perchlorate salts in the planet's soil are lowering the freezing temperature of water, setting up conditions for liquid brines to form at equatorial regions, new research from NASA's Curiosity rover shows.

The discovery of subsurface water, even a trickle, around the planets warmer equatorial belt defies current climate models, though spacecraft orbiting Mars have found geologic evidence for transient liquid water, a phenomenon termed "recurring slope lineae."

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The findings, published in this week's Nature Geoscience, are based on nearly two years worth of atmospheric humidity and temperature measurements collected by the roving science laboratory Curiosity, which is exploring an ancient impact basin called Gale Crater near the planet's equator.

The brines, computer models show, form nightly in the upper 2 inches of the planet's soil as perchlorates absorb atmospheric water vapor. As temperatures rise in the morning, the liquid evaporates.

The levels of liquid, however, are too low to support terrestrial-type organisms, the researchers conclude.

"It is not just a problem of water, but also temperature. The water activity and temperatures are so low in Mars that they are beyond the limits of cell reproduction and metabolism," Javier Martin-Torres, with Lulea University of Technology, in Kiruna, Sweden, wrote in an email to Discovery News.

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The realization that conditions were suitable for liquid brines to form stemmed from an unrelated effort to include a brine-manufacturing in-situ resource demonstration on the next Mars rover, slated to launch in 2020. The proposed instrument was not selected, but in the course of its development Martin-Torres and Maria-Paz Zorzano, with the National Institute of Aerospace's Astrobiology Center in Madrid, Spain, analyzed the humidity and temperature data coming back from Curiosity.

"We realized were seeing conditions where brines should be formed," Martin-Torres said.

The discovery has implications for Mars' global environment.

"As perchlorates are widely distributed on the surface of Mars, this discovery implies that the rest of the planet should possess even more abundant brines owing to the expected greater atmospheric water content and lower temperatures," the scientists write in Nature Geoscience.

The scientists hope to include the brine-manufacturing instrument on Europe's ExoMars mission.

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Perchlorates on Mars were discovered by NASA's Phoenix lander in August 2008, a finding that prompted a re-analysis of the 1970s-era Viking experiments that looked for organics on Mars.

Scientists repeated a key Viking experiment using perchlorate-enhanced soil from Chile's Atacama Desert, which is considered one of the driest and most Mars-like places on Earth, and found telltale fingerprints of combusted organics -- the same chemicals Viking scientists dismissed as contaminants from Earth.

"Contrary to 30 years of perceived wisdom, Viking did detect organic materials on Mars," planetary scientist Christopher McKay, with NASA's Ames Research Center in California, told Discovery News at the time. "It's like a 30-year-old cold case suddenly solved with new facts."

The follow-on study didn't mean that Viking found life. Indeed, the ubiquitous presence of highly corrosive perchlorates makes conditions more challenging for life.

The new research, "looks to be against the presence of life, as we know it, in the Martian soil," Martin-Torres said.

NASA's Phoenix Mars lander, which explored the red planet's arctic region, discovered possible brines in 2008. Now rover Curiosity has added compelling evidence for liquid water forming in the upper layers of soil in Mars equatorial region.

The Martian surface is peppered with impact craters of all shapes, sizes and ages. However, many of the craters are just plain weird.

But just how 'weird' is weird?

Curious, Discovery News asked the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) team which craters they considered to be the strangest. HiRISE is the most advanced camera to be put into Mars orbit. It is attached to NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and currently snapping features on the Red Planet's surface -- it has seen a ton of strange objects (sadly, it hasn't found a top secret military base yet, despite what you may have heard to the contrary). So, let's take a tour of some of the weirdest craters Mars has on offer...

Special thanks to Ari Espinoza of the HiRISE team for helping to compile this list (originally published Dec. 30, 2011. Updated May 7, 2013)

Crater, Horst and Graben: Is that a piece of modern art? Actually, it's an impact crater that has been bent and twisted by tectonic processes. Along the fault line that crosses this crater, blocks of rock are forced upward (called "horst") and downward (called "graben"). This is interesting to planetary scientists as it shows that tectonic activity was occurring after the crater was formed.

Rolling Stones Logo? If you squint and use a little imagination, you may see the Rolling Stones' logo. Well, that's what the HiRISE team told us anyway. (I'm still squinting...) In reality, it's an impact crater on a sloping surface. Presumably, the "tongue" of material is slipping down the slope.

Bulls-Eye Impact? Did a small meteorite have the incredible fortune to slam into the center of a larger impact crater? Probably not.

This is one of several examples of "terraced" craters where alternating layers of hard and soft material in the surface layers of the Martian surface have been hit by a single meteorite. The result is a concentric nesting of ridges inside the same crater. Pretty!

What the...? What's the weirdest kind of impact crater? The kind that may not be an impact crater at all (but looks like one). On the slopes of Pavonis Mons, one of Mars' shield volcanoes, this crater has a hole in the middle. The hole is a "skylight," or the collapsed roof of a subterranean lava tube. The loose material above the collapsed roof appears to have slumped into the skylight, creating a crater lookalike. But what caused the roof of the lava tube to collapse? Could a meteorite be to blame? No idea, but HiRISE will be taking some more photos of this little oddity to find out.

Two-for-One Crater Special: What could be worse than a meteorite hitting you? Two meteorites hitting you... at the same time! Yes, that's exactly what happened here. It seems highly likely that one object tumbled through the Martian atmosphere and split in two. In doing so, the two halves impacted in the same location. As can be seen from this example, both halves were likely the same size, producing a rather satisfying imprint.

Another Double-Whammy: Looks like double-impacts are becoming a trend! This time, in addition to the two co-joined impact craters, HiRISE has picked out the rays that are produced when space rocks slam into the Martian surface.

Hit Me Baby Three More Times? It may seem hard to believe, but Mars also has triple-impact craters! It stands to reason that after countless impacts, you might get the occasional meteorite that splits into three when blasting through the atmosphere. So here you have it, a triple-impact crater.

A Triple Ricochet Crater: Another three (likely simultaneous) impacts, only this time their craters are elongated. This suggests the meteorites hit the surface at an oblique angle.

A Simple Blemish: In an apparently featureless plain in the north polar region, a single, small crater appears as the only blemish. Looking closely, the crater seems to be filled with ice.

Bubbly Landscape: This cluster of impact craters in the northern plains of Utopia Planitia contain strange uplift features likely caused by ground ice upheaval.

Crater of Mud: The strange concentric rings inside this crater near the Martian volcano Elysium Mons are thought to be the ancient remnants of a mud flow. Therefore, it is believed this crater wasn't caused by an impact from space, but by material flowing away from under the surface. The crater was then formed as the material above slumped.

Cracked Cookie Crater? There's an odd pair of craters in Hrad Vallis that the HiRISE website describe as a "pair of odd craters." Why so... odd? Well, to me, the larger crater looks like a cracked cookie, probably crevasses and faults carved across its diameter.

The Crater with a Robot Visitor: What makes this crater weird? Well, it's not the crater, it's the little man-made robot that's parked on the crater's western rim that makes this scene weirdly awesome. It's even weirder to think that a robot in Mars orbit has taken a photo of another robot on the Martian surface a couple of hundred miles below. Robots looking out for robots on alien worlds...

This is of course NASA's tenacious Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity that keeps exploring the Martian surface since exceeding its primary mission duration of 3 months back in 2004. Opportunity now has company on the Martian surface -- on Aug. 5, 2012, the nuclear-powered Curiosity landed inside Gale Crater to look for clues behind the habitability of the red planet.

In March 2013, HiRISE spotted a series of non-impact craters in Acidalia Planitia. These may not be impact craters, but they are unlike any other crater discovered on Mars to date! So the process behind their formation will remain a mystery... for now.