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Discovery of liquid water on Mars reassuring to UH-Hilo team hoping to select landing site

NASA’s announcement Monday that it found evidence of liquid water on Mars was reassuring for a University of Hawaii at Hilo team hoping to select the landing site for the first manned mission to the red planet.

John Hamilton, a UH-Hilo astronomy professor, said the location where scientists think salty water reached the surface has similar geology to two sites university faculty and students are proposing the space agency send astronauts to find microbial life and, of course, liquid water, a necessary ingredient.

While it might be hard to compete with a site already showing signs of active hydrology, he said the discovery shows they are on the right track and could give their proposal more attention.

“They found water in this one spot, but they will find it in many, many, many others similar to it,” Hamilton said, adding the team targeted areas with a good chance of hosting salty water underneath.

Extremely salty water is more likely to remain in liquid form on the planet where temperatures dip far below zero. While it doesn’t make the best conditions for supporting life, there still might be “extremophiles” who find it comfortable enough, he said.

Hamilton recently submitted UH-Hilo’s two landing site proposals to NASA, which is hosting a workshop in late October in Houston on selecting areas for human exploration. He said NASA has received about 50 proposals.

The university’s locations sit about midway down “flow features” in valleys, according to the proposal.

Instruments on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter found evidence of water recently trickling down Martian slopes, leading to the announcement.

Hamilton said the Big Island hosts areas that also are geologically similar to the proposed landing sites. If NASA picks one of them, that could result in more research being done here, he said, which would be a boost for UH-Hilo faculty and students.

UH-Hilo’s team also includes astronomy professor Norman Purves, Geology chairperson Steve Lundblad and Larry Clark, an in-situ resource utilization expert who has done work in Hawaii. Two students, Colin Milovsoroff and Niki Thomas, also are part of the team, and Hamilton said he is trying to secure funding to fly them to the event.

Even if NASA doesn’t pick one of their proposals, the Big Island still easily is a hot spot for Mars-related research.

In addition to hosting the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems, of which Hamilton is a staff member, the island also is the site of an ongoing Mars habitat simulation.

Also, a NASA team will conduct site visits on the island next month as part of its BASALT program, which stands for Biologic Analog Science Associated with Lava Terrains, Hamilton said.

The team is conducting field research in Idaho and Hawaii to understand how life might have existed, or continues to exist, on similar volcanic terrains on Mars.

That project, which also involves UH-Hilo students, will help develop the techniques that might be used to take samples without causing contamination, he said.

“We actually get to be determining all the protocols and practices that they’ll be using when they go to Mars,” Hamilton said.

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