The map above, reduced and annotated by me, comes from a new science paper that has attempted to model where on Mars we might find liquid very salty water, based on the planet’s known temperature and make-up. From the press release:
The team of researchers used laboratory measurements of Mars-relevant salts along with Martian climate information from both planetary models and spacecraft measurements. They developed a model to predict where, when, and for how long brines are stable on the surface and shallow subsurface of Mars. They found that brine formation from some salts can lead to liquid water over 40% of the Martian surface but only seasonally, during 2% of the Martian year.
“In our work, we show that the highest temperature a stable brine will experience on Mars is -48°C (-55° F). This is well below the lowest temperature we know life can tolerate,” says Dr. Rivera-Valentín. “For many years we have worried about contaminating Mars with terrestrial life as we have sent spacecraft to explore its surface. These new results reduce some of the risk of exploring Mars,” noted Dr. Alejandro Soto at the Southwest Research Institute and co-author of the study. [emphasis mine]
I have added a red rectangle to the map, showing the candidate landing zone for SpaceX’s Starship. This paper illustrates again that this choice is a good one. We know from other research that there is a lot of ice very close to the surface here. This research indicates that for a little less than one percent of each year, some of that ice will turn to liquid brine.
Whether it will be easier to process the ice or the brine into drinkable water remains unknown. This location however will give future colonists that option.
That this model also suggests that there is little risk of contaminating Mars accidently with terrestrial life is really not a surprise. All the research of Mars for decades has found that it is inhospitable to terrestrial life. This data however is further confirmation, and tells us once again that worrying about contaminating the planet is a irrelevancy. For scientific reasons some precautions should be taken, but to spend a lot of time and money sterilizing the spacecraft we send there will be a fool’s errand. For humans to settle Mars will require a very very high level of engineering and adaptation, something we humans are very naturally good at, but something that shouldn’t be burdened with unnecessary tasks or restrictions.