London, Feb 18 (ANI): If reports are to be believed, NASA's Phoenix Lander may have captured the first images of liquid water on Mars, droplets that apparently splashed onto the spacecraft's leg during landing.
According to a report in New Scientist, the controversial observation could be explained by the mission's previous discovery of perchlorate salts in the soil, since the salts can keep water liquid at sub-zero temperatures.
Researchers have said that this antifreeze effect makes it possible for liquid water to be widespread just below the surface of Mars, but point out that even if it is there, it may be too salty to support life as we know it.
A few days after Phoenix landed on 25 May 2008, it sent back an image showing mysterious splotches of material attached to one of its legs.
Strangely, the splotches grew in size over the next few weeks, and Phoenix scientists have been debating the origin of the objects ever since.
One intriguing possibility is that they were droplets of salty water that grew by absorbing water vapour from the atmosphere.
Arguments for this idea are laid out in a study by Phoenix team member Nilton Renno of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and co-authored by 21 other researchers, including the mission's chief scientist, Peter Smith of the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Gaping canyons and river-like channels attest to the fact that large amounts of liquid water once flowed on Mars.
The surface now appears dry, though the changing appearance of some crater gullies over a period of several years has hinted at the existence of subsurface aquifers that occasionally release bursts of water.
At Phoenix's landing site in the Martian arctic, it is too cold for pure water to exist in liquid form - the temperature never rose above -20 degrees Celsius during the five-month-long mission.
But, salty water can stay liquid at much lower temperatures. And perchlorate salts, which were detected for the first time on Mars by Phoenix, would have an especially dramatic 'antifreeze' effect.
An extremely salty mixture of water and perchlorates could stay liquid all the way down to -70 degrees C.
If perchlorates are widespread on Mars at high concentrations, then pockets of liquid water might also be widespread below the planet's surface.
"According to my calculations, you can have liquid saline solutions just below the surface almost anywhere on Mars," Renno told New Scientist.
And Phoenix may have already snapped images of water kept liquid thanks to perchlorate salts. (ANI)