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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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.