On Monday, September 28th, NASA held a special press conference which, they had promised, would “solve” a “major” mystery about Mars.
As I noted in my Space Sunday update prior to the conference, the major speculation was that the US space agency would be discussing what are called recurring slope lineae (RSL) features on Mars.
RSLs have been the subject of intense debate and discussion since 2011, when an undergraduate called Lujendra Ojha published the first in a series of papers on their presence on Mars. In essence, they are ridges and rills which appear on the slopes of hills and craters, notably in the equatorial regions of Mars. The significance here being that on Earth, identical features are always the result of free-flowing water.
Given that it is known that Mars once supported liquid water on its surface, the presence of these features wouldn’t be that exceptional were they part of the ancient landscape. However, as the “recurring” in the title suggests, the Martian RSLs appear to be active – recurring frequently, sometimes on the seasonal basis. renewing and growing, with new ones also being periodically created.
Given the overall similarities between RSLs seen on Mars and those seen on Earth, particularly in Antarctica, the common belief has been that liquid water is responsible for the features on Mars. If true, then it would indicate two things.
The first would be that Mars would appear to have a subsurface water table of some description – which would be consistent with the idea that as the planet lost its atmosphere, whatever water remained on the surface may have retreated underground. The second is that it would seem to indicate that Mars is still in some way geologically active, with some mechanism at work forcing this water to the surface and creating these sudden, if short-lived outflows.
The NASA conference coincided with the publication of another paper in Nature Geoscience by Ojha and his colleagues. both pointed directly to water being the cause of the Martian RSLs. In particular, they both report that spectral analysis of some of the more recent and broader RSL channels shows they are rich in hydrated salts, which strongly indicates the presence of water. These salts are consistent with the chemical signatures of magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate and sodium perchlorate.
This is significant because the presence of perchlorate deposits in water can work to prevent that water freezing solid in the kind of summer daytime temperatures – around -23C (-10F) – often experienced in the regions where these RSLs are found. Thus, if held in suspension, they would create a watery brine capable for fluid motion, and which, if released in significant enough amounts, could give rise to the RSLs prior to the water itself sublimating rapidly into the tenuous Martian atmosphere, leaving the hydrated deposits behind.
The conclusion is that it is indeed liquid water that is causing these RSLs on Mars, and that this water is in a liquid, rather than solid state, at least during certain periods, such that it can be forced to the surface.
However, all is still not entirely clear – something which tends to cast a shadow on the idea of a “mystery” having been “solved”. For one thing, if the RSL rills are below a certain width, they are entirely devoid of any hydrated deposits. This could mean that some other process is involved in their formation, which has yet to be determined. Further, the mechanism which is actually responsible for forcing the water to the surface a creating the outflow which result in these RSLs is still unknown.