Image of mountain range or hills with swirling pattern of light and dark streaks.

In this image of Mars, the dark downhill streaks indicate the presence of flowing water. (Courtesy of NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.)

This week’s announcement by NASA confirming liquid water flowing on the surface of Mars is big news. Several MIT faculty who study Mars shared their thoughts with’s Eric Levenson:

“I’m excited about this,” said Kerri Cahoy, an MIT assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics who has done research for NASA. “They have made, in my opinion, a milestone step forward.”

J. Taylor Perron, an MIT Associate Professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, has studied the ancient history of water on Mars. The planet’s terrain shows evidence that it once had rivers and lakes, and possibly an ocean, billions of years ago, which have long since dried up.

“The new thing and the exciting thing about this discovery is that liquid water is still flowing now, even though Mars, otherwise, is basically a cold desert,” Perron said. “News like this, that hopefully gets people excited about Mars, is fantastic.”

Ben Weiss, an MIT Professor of Planetary Sciences, has focused his study on Mars’s ancient magnetic field, which died billions of years ago. He and other scientists have hypothesized that the magnetic field’s death is related to the destruction of the planet’s atmosphere and climate.

“This kind of discovery reopens the possibility that Mars is not some kind of dead body,” Weiss said. “To actually see liquid water or at least a brine flowing on the surface, that’s kind of mind-blowing.

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Like to learn more?  Start with these introductory courses on OCW by Professors Perron and Weiss.

  • 12.001 Introduction to Geology, co-taught by Prof. Perron and Prof. Oliver Jagoutz introduces students to geological study through lecture, lab, and fieldwork.  The OCW course includes lecture notes, image galleries, and extensive instructor commentary on how they teach this course.
  • 12.002 Physics and Chemistry of the Terrestrial Planets, co-taught by Prof. Weiss and Prof. Leigh Royden, introduces the structure, composition, and physical properties of the planets, including Mars.