Further evidence has emerged that Mars still has some liquid water

Scientists analysing images of Mars have found even more signs that, in rare circumstances, Mars may have water flowing across its surface.

Mars is supposed to be a dead, dry planet. There are clear signs that liquid water used to flow across its surface - remember Nasa mocking up that video of the Mars of 3.7 billion years ago? - but one of the Curiosity rover’s jobs right now is to investigate what we take to be ancient river bed.

This makes it very surprising indeed that scientists saw dark, water-like streaks in the red dust, in 2011. This should not be happening on a planet with no atmosphere.

To be clear, this isn’t proof that there’s liquid water on Mars - it’s just that we’ve seen something that looks a heck of a lot like liquid water. Here’s a slideshow of eight images showing what we’re talking about, provided by Nature:

Those black lines, as spotted by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, are known as “recurring slope lineae”, and they darken the Martian soil just as water darkens soil on Earth. They were originally found two years ago at seven sites in the highlands of southern Mars, at middle latitudes which warm up in the summer and freeze again in the winter.

This latest study, by the same team of planetary scientists led by Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona in Tucson, has found a further 12 sites with streaks, all on or near the equator. The equator has roughly the same temperatures year-round, and that means that - if there’s liquid water flowing on the surface - there must be a mechanism in place to replenish it. Mars’ low atmospheric pressure means that liquid water on the surface should sublimate into a gas almost immediately.

We now know that there’s quite a lot of water on Mars, be it frozen on the surface at the poles, under the surface elsewhere on the planet, or bound up with the soil itself. The implication of a flowing water source is that it might be the most likely location of life that still exists on Mars - but, conversely, that also makes it more crucial that we don’t send improperly sterilised probes there. If those Earth microbes are to survive anywhere on Mars - and scientists recently discovered a whole new species of microbe that could survive in even the most sterile of spaceship construction labs - then they’ll survive on these slopes.

It's also exciting for future colonists, who will save on energy if they don't have to heat up ice for drinking water. Our best chance of figuring out the exact nature of these lines on Mars is from afar, with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, until we can decide what further action to take. Perhaps even the first colonisers, whoever they be (maybe it'll be Mars One, who want to send people there on a one-way mission starting from 2024) will be able to take advantage of that water source.

Dark streaks on Mars that may be water. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/U. of Arizona)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Move objects with your mind – telekinesis is coming to a human brain near you

If a user puts on the Neurable headset, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

On 30 July, a blog post on Medium by Michael Thompson, the vice-president of Boston-based start-up Neurable, said his company had perfected a kind of technology which would be “redrawing the boundaries of human experience”. 

Neurable had just fulfilled the pipe dreams of science fiction enthusiasts and video game fanboys, according to Thompson – it had created a telekinetic EEG strap. In plain English, if a user puts on the Neurable headset, and plays a specially-designed virtual reality video game, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

Madrid-based gaming company eStudioFuture collaborated with Neurable to create the game, Awakening. In it, the user breaks out of a government lab, battles robots and interacts with objects around them, all hands-free with Neurable's headset. Awakening debuted at SIGGRAPH, a computer graphics conference in Boston, where it was well received by consumers and investors alike.

The strap (or peripheral, as it’s referred to) works by modifying the industry standard headset of oversized goggles. Neurable's addition has a comb-like structure that reaches past your hair to make contact with the scalp, then detects brain activity via electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors. These detect specific kinds of neural signals. Thanks to a combination of machine-learning software and eye-tracking technology, all the user of the headset has to do is think the word “grab”, and that object will move – for example, throwing a box at the robot trying to stop you from breaking out of a government lab. 

The current conversation around virtual reality, and technologies like it, lurches between optimism and cynicism. Critics have highlighted the narrow range of uses that the current technology is aimed at (think fun facial filters on Snapchat). But after the debut of virtual reality headsets Oculus Rift and HTC Vive at 2016’s Game Developers conference, entrepreneurs are increasingly taking notice of virtual reality's potential to make everyday life more convenient.

Tech giants such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google have all been in on the game since as far back as 2014, when Facebook bought Oculus (of Oculus Rift). Then, in 2016, Nintendo and Niantic (an off-shoot from Google) launched Pokémon Go. One of Microsoft’s leading technical fellows, Alex Kipman, told Polygon that distinctions between virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality were arbitrary: "At the end of the day, it’s all on a continuum." 

Oculus’s Jason Rubin has emphasised the potential that VR has to make human life that much more interesting or efficient. Say that you're undergoing a home renovation – potentially, with VR technology, you could pop on your headset and see a hologram of your living room. You could move your virtual furniture around with minimal effort, and then do exactly the same in reality – in half the time and effort. IKEA already offers a similar service in store – imagine being able to do it yourself.

Any kind of experience that is in part virtual reality – from video games to online tours of holiday destinations to interactive displays at museums – will become much more immersive.

Microsoft’s Hololens is already being trialled at University College London Hospital, where students can study detailed holograms of organs, and patients can get an in-depth look at their insides projected in front of them (Hololens won’t be commercially available for a while.) Neurable's ambitions go beyond video games – its headset was designed by neuroscientists who had spent years working in neurotechnology. It offers the potential for important scientific and technological breakthroughs in areas such as prosthetic limbs. 

Whether it was a childhood obsession with Star Wars or out of sheer laziness, as a society, we remain fascinated by the thought of being able to move objects with our minds. But in actual realityVR and similar technologies bring with them a set of prickly questions.

Will students at well-funded schools be able to get a more in-depth look at topography in a geography lesson through VR headsets than their counterparts elsewhere? Would companies be able to maintain a grip on what people do in virtual reality, or would people eventually start to make their own (there are already plenty of DIY tutorials on the internet)? Will governments be able to regulate and monitor the use of insidious technology like augmented reality or mixed reality, and make sure that it doesn't become potentially harmful to minors or infringe on privacy rights? 

Worldwide spending on items such as virtual reality headsets and games is forecast to double every year until 2021, according to recent figures. Industry experts and innovators tend to agree that it remains extremely unlikely you’ll walk into someone examining a hologram on the street. All the same, VR technology like Neurable’s is slowly creeping into the fabric of our lived environment.