NASA's Rover Detects Water On Mars

Oct 2, 2013
Originally published on September 27, 2013 4:20 pm

Water has been discovered in the soil on Mars, according to measurements made by NASA’s Curiosity rover.

It’s a breakthrough finding in determining whether the red planet can harbor life, or if it ever has.

NASA scientists published their findings this week in the journal, Science.


  • Laurie Leshin, lead researcher on the paper that has confirmed the existence of water in Mars’ soil.
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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW.

NASA's Curiosity rover has discovered water in the soil on Mars. It is a breakthrough finding in determining whether the Red Planet can harbor life or ever has. Laurie Leshin is lead researcher on the paper that has confirmed the existence of water in Mars' soil. She joins us now. Laurie, welcome.


HOBSON: Well, so tell us what is new in these findings exactly.

LESHIN: Well, what we've done with Curiosity is - this is a result from the first 100 days of our mission where we scooped up the dirt beneath our wheels, some samples of soil. And we sift them a little bit, and then we fed them about half a baby aspirin's worth at a time into our oven, heated them up three times hotter than your oven at home and extracted the gases that came off. And we found and directly detected, bound to the soil, about two percent water.

HOBSON: But we had already confirmed that there was water in the poles, that there was ice on the poles, right? So what - is this a surprise to you?

LESHIN: Well, I'll tell you. We are very near the equator. And you're absolutely right, the Phoenix mission confirmed water near the poles. And we've also done other kinds of remote observations that have suggested water in different ways. But here, we were actually, you know, tasting the water in our mass spectrometer. So it is a direct detection, plus we're near the equator. And so it's not ice from the poles, it's water bound in the soil.

HOBSON: So what does that tell you about what else might be in the soil?

LESHIN: Well, we also actually looked for lots of other things. In fact, we discovered other kinds of gases that are bound up in minerals, including some that indicate there are some not-so-good things in the soil, like a mineral called perchlorate, which can actually - if ingested, can cause problems with your thyroid. So it's sort of a good news/band news story for future human explorers. They could probably extract water from the ground beneath their feet, but they also will need to be careful with some more harmful chemicals.

HOBSON: When you're trying to determine exactly what is in the soil, I assume there are things that we can figure out what they are, and then there are also things that may not exist on Earth. Is that right or is everything that's in the Marsian soil, also here on Earth?

LESHIN: Well, the perchlorates are good example of something that isn't very common on the Earth, and so Mars soil is a bit different than Earth. Also, Earth soil is full of organic molecules, that is the remnants of living things. We looked for those in the soil on Mars. But, in fact, we didn't find any organics that were clearly Marsian. It's not too surprising because we know that the soil on Mars is pretty oxidizing and it's exposed to lots of radiation. But since we really we want to try and find organic molecules on Mars, that's why we brought a drill with us and Curiosity will be drilling into rocks where those organics might be preserved better.

HOBSON: And we also learned this week that Curiosity did not find any methane on Mars, which is bad in terms of looking for life, right?

LESHIN: Well, it's interesting because it's exactly the same instrument that looked for the methane and didn't find it and also detected all these other gases in the soil, like water. So two sides of every coin, I guess.

HOBSON: Well, what does these all mean for the future exploration of the Red Planet? What is next?

LESHIN: Yeah. So for the next for us with Curiosity, we're drive, drive, drive right now. We're headed towards Mount Sharp, which is beautiful layers of rocks that we can use our drill to drill inside of and, again, look for those organic molecules that might be preserved and try to understand the ancient environment on Mars, whether or not it was habitable.

And then, I think, these results also have interesting possible feed forward for future human explorers, knowing that the dirt beneath their feet, probably almost anywhere they go, will have some bound water in it. And that's good news for future explorers.

HOBSON: When do you think there'll be human explorers on Mars, Laurie?

LESHIN: I'm ready to go. I don't know about you.


LESHIN: But I think we should go now.

HOBSON: All right. I'll let you go first and I'll follow afterward. Laurie Leshin, dean of the School of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and lead researcher on the paper that has confirmed the existence of water in the soil on Mars. Laurie, thanks so much.

LESHIN: Oh, thank you.

HOBSON: And you're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.