This GIF Shows What Might Be Water Flowing on Mars

Thanks to seasonally warm temperatures and some iron-based anti-freeze
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NASA scientists have long followed a chanted a mantra about Mars: follow the water, follow the water. So, we sent a lander to the northern latitudes looking for extant ice. More recently, the Mars Curiosity rover has been exploring planetary features that seem created by long-ago water flows, at least if Martian geology is as familiar as we think it is. 

But what about water now? Flowing water. 

Georgia Tech scientists working with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spotted some seasonal darkening along some slopes during warm weather. In the image above, the lines move from right to left down the slope of the Newton crater. They're called "recurring slope lineae." 

It looks, to eyes on Earth, like some kind of water flow. 

"We still don't have a smoking gun for existence of water in RSL, although we're not sure how this process would take place without water," the graduate student who discovered the RSL, Lujendra Ojha, said in a NASA release. 

But temperatures on Mars are too cold for regular old H2O. The water would have to have some kind of natural anti-freeze in it. And that's what Ojha and Georgia Tech professor James Wray went looking for in new studies. 

They found that iron concentrations increase in RSL regions as the lines get darker and longer. The scientists hypothesize that it's some kind of iron-based antifreeze flowing in the water, perhaps, they suggest, ferric sulfate. 

In any case, these recent studies don't conclusively prove whether there is flowing water on Mars, nor do they begin to answer the big question: could this water support some sort of life? After all, it is the necessity of water for life as we know it that makes scouring Mars for water NASA's reasonable MO.

But it does make for an exciting time for Martian researchers: flowing water on Mars would be a very big deal.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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