Curiosity Rover Discovers Water Vapor in the Soil of Mars

By Wesley Fenlon

Heat Martian soil up to a toasty 835 degrees Celsius, and voila--H20.

The Curiosity Rover, NASA's intrepid Martian explorer, is still dutifully rolling around and collecting samples in Mars' Gale Crater. You know, keeping busy; discovering water in the Martian soil, for example. No big deal.

Actually, kind of a huge deal. As the BBC reports, Curiosity has been scooping up soil samples on Mars and studying them. When the soil is heated to a very hot 835 degrees Celsius to produce vapor, H20 is the most prominent vapor. "Water abundance (1.5 to 3 weight percent) and release temperature suggest that H2O is bound within an amorphous component of the sample," states a Science study (unfortunately paywalled) on Curiosity's findings published today. The full papers can be found here.

The BBC quotes Dr. Laurie Leshin, who researched Curiosity's findings and is also the dean of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York: "If you think about a cubic foot of this dirt and you just heat it a little bit - a few hundred degrees - you'll actually get off about two pints of water - like two water bottles you'd take to the gym."

Photo credit: NASA

We're not talking about scientifically interesting but practically useless volumes of water on Mars, then. We're talking about a volume of water that future astronauts could survive on, given the right equipment. There's no shortage of dirt on Mars, and processing it could provide the water to survive an extended stay.

Five research papers were published today on Curiosity's findings so far. One of the studies also reveals some potential bad news about the soil; the presence of a mineral called perchlorate, which can cause thyroid problems for humans when ingested. Perchlorate is hinted at by the presence of oxygen and chlorine in the soil, which perchlorate can be broken into. In knowing about the perchlorate, however, NASA can plan for it, and make sure the first adventurers to touch down on Martian soil can cook up some dirt and drink a healthy, refreshing glass of local Mars water.