September 27, 2013 – Water will be the least of the problems future Martian explorers face state researchers from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. These conclusions come from data collected by Curiosity, the Martian rover currently exploring Gale Crater. The water is so abundant that for every 0.03 cubic meters (one cubic foot) of soil astronauts would be able to harvest 1 liter (2 pints) of water.
How does that compare to deserts here on Earth? Well Mars has been compared to the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile. The Atacama is the driest place on Earth. It is a high desert plateau at elevations above 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) that stretches more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) and is devoid of visible plant life. The Atacama sees precipitation in single digit millimeters every few years. Dig down into the soil of the Atacama and you find moisture at levels similar to those on Mars as well as a rich microbial world of extremophiles, single celled plants and animals that can withstand the cold, dryness and salty hard pan that underlies the surface.
The picture below has the Atacama Desert on the left and Mars’ Gale Crater on the right. Except for the colour of the sky the topography appear very similar.
Curiosity’s sample analyzer called SAM not only has found lots of water but also heavy water, deuterium. This is water that contains an extra neutron, and is used as a moderator to slow down the fission reaction in CANDU nuclear reactors, in magnetic resonance imaging, and many medical applications. here on Earth. SAM has also found a similar amount of deuterium in the Martian atmosphere which indicates that the surface of the planet is acting like a sponge, absorbing water from the air above it.
Here on Earth water is the key to life. Is it as well on Mars? The current rovers cannot tell us that. NASA’s next rover may when it leaves for Mars in 2020.