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Is Mars sucking water from its own atmosphere?

Salty soils on Mars act to collect moisture from the Red Planet's atmosphere, according to new research. The salt and the moisture combine to create a brine that may encourage nutrients.

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This artist's rendering released in 2006 by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory shows the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter near Mars. The salty soil on Mars is taking moisture out of the atmosphere, scientists say.

AP Photo/ NASA/JPL

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It happens every summer in humid air: the salt in your salt shaker clumps together as the salt draws in the water from the air. Researchers have found this happens even in the frigid but dry McMurdo Dry Valley in Antarctica, a cold, polar desert. The sandy, salty soils there are frequently dotted with moist patches in the spring despite a lack of snowmelt and no possibility of rain. What was discovered is that the salty soils in the region actually suck moisture out of the atmosphere. Salty soils were found on Mars’ polar region by the Phoenix lander, so could the same thing be happening on the Red Planet, creating a salt brine within Mars’ soil? And if so what are the implications for life forming there?
  
Joseph Levy, a post-doctoral researcher from Oregon State University said it takes a combination of the right kinds of salts and sufficient humidity to make the process work. But those ingredients are present on Mars.

“If you have sodium chloride, or table salt, you may need a day with 75 percent humidity to make it work,” he added. “But if you have calcium chloride, even on a frigid day, you only need a humidity level above 35 percent to trigger the response.”

The soils in Antarctica have salt from sea spray and from ancient fjords that flooded the region. With enough humidity, those salty soils suck the water right out of the air, forming a brine, Levy said, that will keep collecting water vapor until it equalizes with the atmosphere.

Levy and his colleagues, from Portland State University and Ohio State University, found that the wet soils created by this phenomenon were 3-5 times more water-rich than surrounding soils – and they were also full of organic matter, including microbes, which they said could enhance the potential for life on Mars. The elevated salt content also depresses the freezing temperature of the groundwater, which continues to draw moisture out of the air when other wet areas in the valleys begin to freeze in the winter.

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