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Could Water Have Changed the Face of Mars, or Is the Habitability Question too Much to Bare?

Dec 12, 2014 04:27 PM EST

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While some parts of the nation are fighting Winter storms of snow and sleet, eyes this week are o water of the liquid variety. And more specifically, researchers and reporters are looking towards the molecule's importance in developing life, as well as its origins story too. News this week of the European Space Agency's (ESA) Rosetta Mission, revealed a recently published study reporting that the sustenance of our Earth and of all life, water, may in fact have not originated on comets from the Kuiper Belt as once believed. And what's more, now that researchers have debunked false origin stories of the miracle molecule, they're now beginning to question whether water alone can make a planet habitable for life, or if there are other mitigating conditions as well.

After an arduous ten year journey throughout some tough terrain of space, the European Space Agency's (ESA) Rosetta mission set records this past summer for being the first spacecraft to orbit a comet in mid-flight. And while many expected the mission to reveal a bit more insight into the behavior and composition of comets from the outer edges of our solar system, no one expected to learn exactly how Earth came to be so unique and the perfect host to life, only three planets away from our sun.

In a study published this Wednesday, Dec 10, in the journal Science, researchers from the ESA reveal that the Rosetta mission's ROSINA instrument has captured water residue released by the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and it turns out that it contains a very different chemical fingerprint than that of water on Earth.

"The provenance of water and organic compounds on the Earth and other terrestrial planets has been discussed for a long time without reaching a consensus" lead researcher of the study, Kathrin Altwegg from the University of Bern says.

As part of the mystery, researchers involved with Rosetta had hoped that the mission may reveal how the Earth has become inundated with H2O, however, the new data and chemical signatures identified by ROSINA indicate that the Earth likely inherited its water from an asteroid, rather than from primitive comets.

For eight missions now, with other Mars rover and exploration plans currently underway, researchers at NASA have been biasely on the lookout for the elusive H2O. Primarily because  it is considered a strong indication that the planet may have hosted life before it became the cold, barren planet it is today, but also because it could very well tell us about the history of life on our planet as well in the process.

In a recent study published Thursday Dec. 11 in the journal Science, NASA astrobiologist Pamela Conrad highlights the importance of water as an indicator on Mars, however, points to the large misconception that water will mark the sign of existence. Rather, Conrad encourages researchers studying Mars' past habitability to investigate other chemical and physical characteristics, like temperature and radiation levels, that may have not been conditions favorable to life in the past as much as they are today.

"People have often focused on the water, and there's a lot more going on with Mars" astrobiologist with University of Washington, Rory Barnes says. "Conrad's paper provides a sort of sanity check on what we're trying to do on Mars and what we still need to find out. It's a complicated web of issues that affect planetary habitability."

In theory, Mars has all of the necessary components for a planet to be host to life, of which we only have Earth as a sole host to the example, which include a source of energy (the sun), water, and air to breathe. However, when considering other conditions, the question becomes far more complicated than anyone is likely to understand. Researchers hope that continued efforts are able to advance the working knowledge the NASA Mars teams are able to work with, as well as, perhaps one day sending back samples of soil and rock strata that may reveal secrets beneath the surface of Mars' secret past.

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