Water found on Mars – but is it drinkable?

The Curiosity rover has discovered some amazing things since it landed on Mars just over a year ago as it drills, samples and analyses the chemistry of the planet’s surface. Although the car-sized rover isn’t equipped to detect signs of life, it has found clear evidence that Mars once had an environment capable of supporting microbes – and perhaps most excitingly, it recently found what NASA describes as a “high percentage of water” in the Martian soil. Could this pave the way for future colonisation of the Red Planet?

This water, which is thought to make up about two per cent of the soil on Mars, is not in liquid form, but by heating just a cubic foot of Martian soil by a few hundred degrees, astronauts could extract about two pints of water from it – very good news for the planetary explorers of the future. However, there is a downside. The soil contains a small percentage of perchlorate, a mineral used in rocket fuel and explosives, which is a contaminant that interferes with the thyroid function in humans, stunting normal growth and development.

“It could be a problem if humans were to ingest some of the fine dust on Mars. It’s just something we need to know about now so we can plan for it later,” Curiosity researcher Dr Laurie Leshin told Science magazine. Perchlorate normally can’t be removed from water by the kinds of water filters you use in your home, but using more heavy-duty ion-exchange filters may offer a solution. These systems exchange contaminant ions for other ions, such as chlorides and hydroxides, to make the water safe to drink again.

Does this mean Harvey Water Softeners’ services could be required on Mars sometime in the distant future? We’ll have to wait and see…

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