Editor's Update (Sept. 26): NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has discovered that there is water locked up in the Martian dirt, with each cubic foot of surface soil made up of 2 percent water. See our full story on the Mars water discovery and our gallery below:
Water on Mars, so challenging to find today, may once have covered the planet with rivers and oceans. Where did all of the liquid water go? Why? Could some still remain?
From an ocean to a desert
Observations of the Red Planet indicate that rivers and oceans may have been prominent features in its early history. But the planet is smaller than Earth, with less gravity and a thinner atmosphere. Over time, as liquid water evaporated, more and more of it escaped into space, allowing less to fall back to the surface of the planet.
As Mars' atmosphere dissipated, the temperature dropped to below freezing. Any water at the surface today would have to be frozen, extremely salty, or thoroughly mixed with minerals, but it could still exist, scientists say.
Where is the water today?
Vast deposits of water appear to be trapped within the ice caps at the north and south poles of the planet. Each summer, as temperatures increase, the caps shrink slightly as their contents skip straight from solid to gas form, but in the winter, cooler temperatures cause them to grow to latitudes as low as 45 degrees, or halfway to the equator. The caps are an average of 2 miles (3 kilometers) thick and, if completely melted, could cover the Martian surface with about 18 feet (5.6 meters) of water.
Scientists say more water may be frozen just beneath the surface, covered by the dry red dust that blankets the planet. Some high-latitude regions seem to boast patterned ground-shapes that may have formed as permafrost in the soil freezes and thaws over time. The European Space Agency's Mars Express spacecraft captured images of sheets of ice in the cooler, shadowed bottoms of craters.
Searching for an oasis
When Mariner 9 became the first craft to orbit another planet in 1971, the photographs it returned of dry river beds and canyons seemed to indicate that water had once existed on the Martian surface. Images from the Viking orbiters only strengthened the idea that many of the landforms may have been created by running water. Data from the Viking landers pointed to the presence of water beneath the surface, but the experiments were deemed inconclusive. [Mars Explored: Landers and Rovers Since 1971 (Infographic)]
The early '90s kicked off a slew of Mars missions. Scientists were flooded with a wealth of information about Mars. Three NASA orbiters and one sent by the European Space Agency studied the planet from above, mapping the surface and analyzing the minerals below. Some detected the presence of minerals, indicating the presence of water. Other data measured enough subsurface ice to fill Lake Michigan twice. They found evidence for the presence of hot springs on the surface and sustained precipitation at some areas. And they found patches of ice within some of the deeper craters.
But orbiters weren't the only objects launched toward Mars. Curiosity is the fifth robot to land on the surface of the Red Planet in the last 15 years. Pathfinder, Phoenix, Spirit and Opportunity all took detailed measurements of the planet; all but Phoenix traveled across the surface collecting a treasure trove of information.
The probes dug into the ground, examining rocks and performing experiments. In 2008, Phoenix turned up small chunks of bright material that disappeared after four days, leading scientists to surmise that they were pieces of water ice. The lander went on to detect water vapor in a sample it collected and analyzed, confirming the presence of frozen water on the red planet.
Spirit and Opportunity, the twin rovers, found traces of water enclosed in rock. In a shining example of a problem becoming a solution, a broken wheel on Spirit scraped into the top of the Martian surface, revealing a layer beneath rich in silica that had most likely formed in the presence of water.
Curiosity has found yet more evidence of water flowing on ancient Mars. The 1-ton rover rolled through an ancient streambed shortly after touching down in August 2012, and it has examined a number of rocks that were exposed to liquid water billions of years ago.
In addition to examining the relatively recent (geologically speaking) presence of water, the various missions have also studied the surface of the planet in a historical context. The river beds of Mars don't run wet today, but scientists can study them to learn more about the evolution of the planet. [Photos: The Search for Water on Mars]
The flatter northern plains of Mars may once have hosted an ocean, or possibly, as the planet cycled through dry periods, two. The more recent body of water would likely have only been temporary, seeping into the ground, evaporating, or freezing in less than a million years, scientists say.
Riverbeds and gullies indicate that water ran, at least briefly, across the surface of Mars. A hundred times more water may have flowed annually through a large channel system known as Marte Vallis than passes through the Mississippi River each year, according to estimates. The gullies themselves are smaller, likely forming during brief torrential rainstorms when fast-moving water could have carved them across the land.
On Earth, the land around rivers and lakes is wetter, made up of mud and clays. Such deposits exist on Mars as well, trapping water and indicating where larger bodies may have once existed.
Water may seem like a very common element to those of us stuck on Earth, but it has great value. In addition to understanding how Mars may have changed and developed over time, scientists hope that finding water will help them to find something even more valuable — life, either past or present.
Only Earth is known to host life, and life on our planet requires water. Though life could conceivably evolve without relying on this precious liquid, scientists can only work with what they know. Thus they hope that locating water on celestial bodies such as Mars will lead to finding evidence for life.
With this in mind, NASA developed a strategy for exploring the Red Planet that takes as its mantra "follow the water." Recent orbiters, landers and rovers sent to Mars were designed to search for water, rather than life, in the hopes of finding environments where life could have thrived.
That has changed, however, with the flood of evidence these robots have returned. Curiosity determined that Mars could indeed have supported microbial life in the ancient past, and the next NASA rover — a car-size robot based heavily on Curiosity's basic design — will blast off in 2020 to look for evidence of past Red Planet life.
Editor's note: This page was updated on Sept. 25, 2013.
—Nola Taylor Redd
- Phoenix Mars Mission Summary of Water on Mars
- NASA's "Follow the Water" Strategy
- NASA and the Case of the Missing Mars Water