Will the Cosmic Colonizers of the Future Drink Water?

Water
person in space suit in water during sunset

Life on our planet is inextricably linked to the abundance of water resting in a liquid state. For a long time, we believed that this existential resource was available exclusively on Earth. However, there are actually huge quantities of H2O across our solar system––hydrogen is the most abundant chemical substance in the (known) universe. Does this mean there is plenty of drinking water in space?

In the summer of 2020, NASA confirmed the hypothetical existence of other ocean planets in the Milky Way. While the evidence is––so far––purely based on telescopic images and mathematical modeling studies, it’s fascinating to ponder that there could well be life elsewhere–– for us and other entities. 

The possibility of our kind colonizing space rests on whether or not planets, in our own solar system, galaxy, or further abroad, have accessible liquid water resources, a critical measure of planetary habitability. 

So, what’s water like in outer space? And where have we located it?

How does water behave in Outer Space? 

When gravity becomes negligible outside the cozy confines of Earth’s atmosphere, the behavior of water changes. Without the gravitational tug downwards, once water is released into space, it forms spheres. 

If you released a bottle of water in space, it would first boil vigorously–– owing to the drop in pressure of the surrounding environment––after which the fine mist that had boiled away would freeze into fine crystals.  

Could we drink alien water? 

While there may be abundant water in space, its mineral makeup could very well make it toxic for human consumption. We wouldn’t recommend filling your water bottle straight from an untested galactical source as it would likely be more of an acidic sludge of minerals, cometary volatiles, and toxic metals than what you recognize as water here on Earth.  

It’s highly likely that in order to make alien water potable, it would have to first be distilled. Since distilled water is unhealthy over a sustained period of time, future space colonizers would have to remineralize it in order to make it nutritious. 

Is there life on Mars?

Mars and Earth were once not so dissimilar as both are located within the habitable zone of the solar system. The frigid red planet was once warm and wet, with coursing rivers and an atmosphere formed from greenhouse gas emitted from volcanoes. Over billions of years, Mars lost its atmosphere and subsequently, its water. 

The NASA Perseverance Rover just touched down on Mars in February 2021, in search of signs of ancient microbial life in the Jezero Crater. 

We already know that Martian soil has high concentrations of perchlorate, a hydrated salt that supports the presence of liquid water. Some 3.5 billion years ago, the Jezero crater was filled with water. As far as we know, liquid water is a prerequisite for all life. The ancient river delta in the crater could have once teemed with life forms of which trace evidence might remain in fossil form. 

The Perseverance Rover will be probing the possibility of there having been life on Mars. Evidence, hopefully preserved in the dry and deep Martian freeze, will be carried back to Earth for analysis. The results could inform our next steps onto the planet and a mission to establish a colony of people. 

surface of a planet

Some scientists have also suggested that lurking deep below the Martian ice are bodies of liquid water. The largest measures 30km across and is surrounded by three smaller lakes. The actual state of the water, however, has not been unanimously accepted as a liquid; many believe that the water is frozen since an adequate source of heat is lacking. Furthermore, even if the water does turn out to be liquid, it would mean it was far too salty to drink. The sodium content would be the only reason the water was able to persist in liquid form, considering the atmosphere on Mars would cause water to freeze or evaporate immediately after it emerged from underground.

Man on the Moon?

Travel to Mars is not the only way to satiate our outer space water thirst: our own humble moon is host to its own variety of H20. It may be trapped in ice across the lunar surface, but it’s apparently potable, provided we filter it––much like we do with terrestrial water. 

Moon water composition is highly dependent on the region of the moon it would be collected from: for example, areas that appear illuminated to us would likely contain anorthosite, a white, calcium-rich rock,  whereas seemingly darker regions might be dominated by basalt.  

While some of the ice is scattered across sunlit regions, a lot is located at the frigid southern and northern lunar poles, continually shielded from the warm rays of the sun, where the temperature never rises above -250 °F. Nevertheless, this water is considered a resource that could facilitate space colonization, whether on the moon or as a pit stop onwards to Mars. 

Fish on Jupiter’s Moon

Europa is one among possibly 79 of Jupiter’s moons. It’s dark and cold; it’s not only far from the Sun but it also has no atmosphere to trap any heat. Europa is roughly the same size as our moon and composed of silicates and water. Europa’s top layer is ice, roughly one hundred meters thick in depth. 

Further below, however, we’ve discovered a capacity for life. Europa’s seafloor looks much like the deepest depths of our own; a landscape of hydrothermal vents and enough oxygen to support the existence of fishlike animals larger than mere microscopic life-forms. The internal heat of tidal forces creates the conditions to host life, although whether or not that life really exists beneath Europa’s ice still looms in the unknown. 

Even if the water were not solid, it’s likely it would have a high concentration of magnesium sulfate, also known as Epsom salts. This means that if you drank it, you’d be trotting off to the toilet soon thereafter––magnesium sulfate is a powerful laxative. 

Interstellar Water 

So far, only NASA’s Voyager 1 has traveled beyond the border of our Solar System. All the information we possess about the rest of the galactic sphere has been provided by telescopes and theoretical modeling. One task and goal shared by space programs around the world is the active search for other Earth-like planets located within habitable zones where the conditions would support liquid water. 

Amid the Libra constellation, 20 light-years away, scientists have identified the Gliese 581 planetary system. Three of its six planets are possible candidates for habitability as they are located within the right distance from their red dwarf star (sun). If an atmosphere is present, the climatic conditions could be similar to earth. 

View of earth through a window on a space shuttle

With our current technology, however, it would take roughly 220 years to travel to Gliese, destroying any hope of sampling its water in the near future. 

Creating Water Out of Nothing

Water in space isn’t necessarily limited to existence on a planet: researchers have identified a factory of water located within a cloud in the black hole 12 billion light-years away. This vapor cloud of water is described as a lake, except its size is incomprehensible––it has roughly 140 trillion times all the water in the world’s oceans, according to NASA.

What’s even more astounding is that the black hole is creating water; the action of sucking in matter and spraying out energy is slamming hydrogen and oxygen atoms together which results in H20. 

We are no longer Earthbound

Our eyes have long been turned towards the skies and what form life could take in outer space. More than 200,000 people applied for a 1-way ticket to Mars to establish the first permanent human settlement in space. Plans to move settlers onto the Moon are being spearheaded by Jeff Bezos. With a seeming abundance of water in space, located at nearly every step in an outward journey past our own solar system, it appears that water will be less of a hurdle in space colonization than previously imagined.

By Natalia Kvitkova — Mar 9, 2021
The information contained in this article is provided for educational and informational purposes only, and should not be construed as health or nutritional advice.

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