The discovery of seasonal water flows on the surface of Mars could galvanize both the search for indigenous life as well plans for future human settlements, but don't pack your bags quite yet.
For the immediate future, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which provided the legwork that led to Monday's announcement, will continue to gather high-resolution images and chemical data from areas, known as recurring slope lineae, or RSL, that have been linked to recent briny water flows.
These dark, narrow streaks cut into cliff walls throughout the planet's equator are unreachable by Curiosity and Opportunity, the two rovers now operating on Mars, and the Curiosity-class rover that is due to launch in 2020.
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"Curiosity has gone up some pretty steep slopes, but some of these briny features are in tough terrain. It'd be trivial to an astronaut in a spacesuit to go up and investigate, but it's very hard for a rover, so we're a little ways off," said John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administrator for science.
"I think (the discovery) will really drive the ingenuity of our scientists and engineers to come up with a viable experiment – and hopefully we can do it in the 2020s -- that would go and investigate these areas and perhaps even return samples from these areas some day," he added.
The existence of regions associated with present day water also means that visiting rovers must be properly sterilized to assure that hitchhiking Earth microbes don't contaminate potential native populations.
"We're being very careful that we don't send a spacecraft to Mars with the intention of detecting Martian life and find out that we've detected the Earth life that we took with us," Grunsfeld said.
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Curiosity, which has provided evidence that ancient Mars had the necessary ingredients and suitable environments for microbial life, could end up playing a role in the search for present-day water as well.
Scientists have noticed RSL-like streaks in the walls of Mount Sharp, the three-mile high mound rising from the floor of Gale Crater, which Curiosity has been exploring since August 2012.
"We don't really know if Curiosity will have an opportunity to go to one of these areas and make measurements," said NASA's planetary science chief Jim Green. "They may or may not be RSLs. We've got a lot of work to do on that."
After three years of intense radiation exposure on Mars, Curiosity could be sterile enough to venture near a potential RSL, but its suite of instruments might not be suited for the job, Green added.
"It has a limited set of capabilities to be able to make any sort of detection in this area," he said.
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Scientists would like more information on where and when RSLs form. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been operating for nearly nine years, makes its observations at 3 p.m. Mars time, the hottest part of the day. Scientists had expected that any trace of water on the surface would have evaporated by then.
The realization that some telltale chemical footprints of water linger into the afternoon has scientists wondering what they might discover with an orbiter that makes observations in the cooler mornings.
"Right now, these RSLS are only known to exist on very steep, rocky slopes -- places where we can't land directly," planetary scientist Alfred McEwen, with the University of Arizona, told Discovery News.
"There may be water ... on flat areas as well that we just don't know about. Maybe we can find this in locations that are more accessible," he said.
Another recent theory suggests these gullies may have been caused by dry ice and that there may not be water on Mars after all.