Georgia Tech student at center of international intrigue over whether NASA has found evidence of water on Mars

By David Pendered

Editor’s note: NASA announced Monday that it confirms water flows on today’s Mars, and Lujendra Ojha was quoted at length in NASA’s statement.

The presence of a Georgia Tech student on a NASA panel on Monday is fueling international speculation that NASA may announce it has discovered evidence of water on Mars.

Lujendra Ojha

Lujendra Ojha, a PhD candidate at Georgia Tech, co-authored a report in 2011 that speculated there may be liquid water on Mars. Ojha’s presence on a NASA panel is fueling international speculation that NASA will announce Monday it has found evidence of water on Mars. Credit:

That’s because Lujendra Ojha, a PhD candidate in planetary science at Tech, co-authored a report in the journal Science in 2011 that speculated there is liquid water on the surface of Mars during warmer seasons, according to a report in the Australian publication, Business Insider.

A second Georgia Tech PhD candidate will be on the panel. Mary Beth Wilhelm is studying planetary science and astrobiology. Wilhelm’s website says her research focuses on, “biomarker preservation in martian and terrestrial environments,” including the analysis of, “ancient hydrous [water-containing] minerals on Mars using the CRISM spectrometer currently in orbit.”

But it’s Ojha’s previous work that was cited in a number of publications. Here’s a portion of the report published Saturday in Business Insider:

  • “The space agency gave out a list of participants who will speak, and notice of a “brief question-and-answer session”, so there’s not a lot to go on.
  • “But a couple of names on the list have journalists and bloggers speculating that NASA is about announce it has found evidence of water on Mars. Possibly even flowing water.
  • “Lujendra Ojha is a grad student and PhD candidate in planetary science at Georgia Tech.
  • “But it was as an undergrad at the University of Arizona where Ohja made a lot of headlines in 2011. At 21, the science fiction fan and Nepal native co-authored a study that suggested liquid water flowed during the warmer months on Mars.”
Mary Beth Wilhelm

Mary Beth Wilhelm, a PhD candidate at Georgia Tech, focuses her research on the presence of water on Mars and Earth, working here on the world’s driest desert, the Atacama Desert, on South America’s Pacific coast. Wilhelm is analyzing data on martian minerals collected by a NASA device now orbiting Mars. Credit: marybethwilhelm.com

This is the abstract of the report that’s driving the speculation about water. Ojha wrote the report with nine co-authors, according to the Science website:

  • “Water probably flowed across ancient Mars, but whether it ever exists as a liquid on the surface today remains debatable. Recurring slope lineae (RSL) are narrow (0.5 to 5 meters), relatively dark markings on steep (25° to 40°) slopes; repeat images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment show them to appear and incrementally grow during warm seasons and fade in cold seasons. They extend downslope from bedrock outcrops, often associated with small channels, and hundreds of them form in some rare locations. RSL appear and lengthen in the late southern spring and summer from 48°S to 32°S latitudes favoring equator-facing slopes, which are times and places with peak surface temperatures from ~250 to 300 kelvin. Liquid brines near the surface might explain this activity, but the exact mechanism and source of water are not understood.”

Here’s the meat of what NASA posted on Sept. 28:

Mars rock outcropping

Striations on this martian rock are evidence that suggest water passed over the rock, such as in the current of a lake. Credit: mars.jpl.nasa.gov

  • “NASA will detail a major science finding from the agency’s ongoing exploration of Mars during a news briefing at 11:30 a.m. EDT on Monday, Sept. 28 at the James Webb Auditorium at NASA Headquarters in Washington. The event will be broadcast live on NASA Television and the agency’s website…..
  • “A brief question-and-answer session will take place during the event with reporters on site and by phone. Members of the public also can ask questions during the briefing using #AskNASA.”

Georgia Tech didn’t spill any beans with a brief item posted on its main webpage. Here’s the full notice posted by Tech:

  • “NASA to Announce Mars Mystery Solved
  • “Monday, Sept. 28 • 11:30 a.m. EST • Live Web Broadcast
  • “NASA will detail a major science finding from the agency’s ongoing exploration of Mars during a news briefing at NASA headquarters in Washington.

    Mars

    NASA is investigating Mars in anticipation of sending a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s. Credit: nasa.gov

  • “The news conference participants include the two lead authors of the new study: Georgia Tech Ph.D. candidates Lujendra Ojha and Mary Beth Wilhelm.
  • “Watch the event live via NASA television on Sept. 28 at 11:30.

As the report in Business Insider concluded:

  • “And obviously, where there’s water, there’s always the prospect of life.
  • “On Tuesday, Sept. 29, at 1 am (AEST), we may find out.

 

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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