The researchers found that a type of salt present in Martian soil can readily melt ice it touches — just like salts do on Earth’s slippery winter walkways and roads. But this Martian salt cannot, as some scientists suggested, form liquid water by sucking vapor out of the air through a process called deliquescence.
“For me, the most exciting thing is that I can now understand how the droplets formed on the Phoenix leg,” said Nilton Renno, a professor of atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences who led the research.
The salt they identified is calcium perchlorate (a mixture of calcium, chlorine and oxygen), found in the Atacama Desert in Chile.
The findings show how small amounts of liquid water could exist across a large swath of Mars’ surface and shallow subsurface, from its polar regions to its mid-latitudes, for several hours a day during the spring and early summer. Such a cycle could form gullies, Renno says, flowing, freezing, thawing and flowing again. Water could also form just beneath the surface.
Renno says the water wouldn’t necessarily need to stay liquid indefinitely for it to support microbial life now or have supported it in the past. Antarctic saltwater and lattices of brine-filled ice-combs have been found to harbor microbial organisms on Earth.
See also: Saturn’s moon Titan’s ocean could be like Dead Sea
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