Science and Technology Facilities Council
New research could explain how river-like channels formed on Mars
A new research paper published recently could help to explain how the mysterious channels, which look like dried-up riverbeds, could have formed on the surface of Mars.
The hunt for extra-terrestrial life is one of the key outstanding mysteries in science – and water is largely regarded as a prerequisite for the development and survival of life. This is why the search for life outside of our planet usually starts as a search for water.
The river-like patterns on Mars’ surface led many to question whether there was once flowing water – and therefore potentially life – on Mars. But despite evidence to suggest water once flowed over the surface of the red planet, it is also well documented that the Martian atmosphere does not have a suitable climate for pure water to remain in liquid form.
Scientists’ conclusions in this new research paper could explain how these Martian channels formed, shedding light on a phenomenon that has perplexed scientists for centuries.
Using the UK’s leading neutron and muon source ISIS, which is based at the Science and Technology Facility Council’s (STFC) Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, scientists from Leeds University studied a man-made replica of Martian water.
ISIS senior scientist Dr Alan Soper was part of the research team, and he said: “This research is particularly fascinating because it could help us to answer some of the great mysteries about life on other planets.
“This does not only have implications just for Mars, as this type of liquid is likely to occur elsewhere in the Universe. This research therefore represents a very exciting step forward in the search for extra-terrestrial liquid water – and with it, life.”
In 2008, NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander discovered perchlorate in the rubble of the planet’s surface, which suggested liquid water might exist below the surface.
The research team used the SANDALS instrument, a neutron diffractometer specifically built for investigating the structure of liquids, to study the structure of the Martian water, known as magnesium perchlorate aqueous solution.
Magnesium perchlorate is used because it has a very low freezing point, which makes it a good substitute when looking at substances found on Mars where the average temperature is around -55 to -60 degrees Celsius.
Neutrons were fired at the solution to allow the scientists to study the perchlorate structure. Neutrons scatter from the hydrogen bonds in solution, and by studying the patterns made by these bonds, the researchers could see the structure of the water inside the perchlorate solution.
Dr Lorna Dougan from the University of Leeds, lead author on the paper, said: “We found these observations quite intriguing. It gives a different perspective of how salts dissolve in water. The magnesium perchlorate is clearly a major contributing factor on the freezing point of this solution and paves the way for understanding how a fluid might exist under the very dry and sub-freezing conditions of Mars.
“This highlights the importance of studying life in extreme environments in both terrestrial and non-terrestrial environments so that we can fully understand the natural limits of life.”
Upon investigation, the researchers found that magnesium perchlorate had a major impact on the water structure in solution, by squashing its structure out of its usual shape – a tetrahedron. By doing this and changing the order of the ions in the structure, it pushes the freezing point of water much lower.
This means that the water is unable to turn into ice, even at really low temperatures. This could therefore explain how these salt solutions, like the one spotted by NASA’s robot, remain liquid on the Martian surface.
The team have therefore shown that aqueous perchlorate solution could provide the ‘transport’ for water to flow across the surface of Mars.
This research was supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
Notes to editors
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
As the main funding agency for engineering and physical sciences research, our vision is for the UK to be the best place in the world to Research, Discover and Innovate. By investing £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, we are building the knowledge and skills base needed to address the scientific and technological challenges facing the nation. Our portfolio covers a vast range of fields from healthcare technologies to structural engineering, manufacturing to mathematics, advanced materials to chemistry. The research we fund has impact across all sectors. It provides a platform for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. We work collectively with our partners and other Research Councils on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.
Latest News from
Science and Technology Facilities Council
Key role for UK industry in answering fundamental questions about the Universe18/03/2019 13:05:00
Powerful new particle accelerator will drive huge physics experiment.
UK becomes home to the HQ of the new international organisation behind the World's biggest ever radio telescope13/03/2019 17:01:00
At a treaty signing in Rome yesterday the UK has formally become the home of the new international organisation behind what will soon be the World’s biggest ever radio telescope – the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).
UK signs up to the world’s biggest ever radio telescope13/03/2019 11:07:00
The UK yesterday signed an agreement in Rome as one of the first organisations involved in the science behind the world’s largest radio telescope.
Using space know-how to 'sniff' out salad quality08/03/2019 12:05:00
Scientists in the UK are working to develop new technology which will be able to ‘smell’ when fruit or vegetables are going off – potentially saving tonnes of waste.
Scientists hunt for new light-harvesting chemical for more effective solar panels05/03/2019 13:05:00
An international team of scientists, led by the UK, are hunting for new, organic light-harvesting chemicals to make solar panels that are both more effective at creating electricity and are environmentally friendly.
Using big science to train data experts in bits and bytes26/02/2019 13:43:00
STFC is helping to train the next generation of UK leaders in artificial intelligence by offering up data from global science facilities.
UK scientists help to reveal hundreds of thousands of galaxies20/02/2019 12:05:00
The first results from an international radio telescope survey were yesterday announced, revealing hundreds of thousands of previously undetected galaxies – and UK scientists are ‘right at the heart of the project’.
Discover the intriguing ice worlds of the outer Solar System18/02/2019 12:05:00
An expert in planetary science is coming to Swindon later this month to give a free public lecture to schoolchildren and the public on the ice worlds that exist in the outer part of the Solar System.