October 31, 2013
For the past 10 years, the European Space Agency’s Mars Express probe has flown around and around the red planet, orbiting it more than 12,500 times in total.
All the while, it’s been collecting detailed topographic data on Mars’ surface with a suite of remote sensing instruments, including high-resolution cameras, radar-sensing devices and spectrometers that can detect the minerals present on the planet by analyzing the spectrum of infrared light they emit.
This video, released earlier this week by the ESA, gives you a look at some of the probe’s most dramatic views to date. The ESA built this simulated flyover from computer graphics based off real-world data, so this clip is (currently) the closest you can possibly get to flying over Mars’ surface yourself.
September 26, 2013
Some 46 Martian days after landing on Mars in August 2012, after traveling nearly 1,000 feet from its landing site, Curiosity came upon a pyramid-shaped rock, roughly 20 inches tall. Researchers had been looking for a rock to use for calibrating a number of the rover’s high-tech instruments, and as principal investigator Roger Wiens said at a press conference at the time, “It was the first good-size rock that we found along the way.”
For the first time, scientists used the rover’s Hand Lens Imager (which takes ultra-high resolution photos of a rock’s surface) and the Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer (which bombards a rock with alpha particles and X-rays, kicking off electrons in patterns that allow scientists to identify the elements locked within it). They also used the ChemCam, a device that fires a laser at a rock and measures the abundances of elements vaporized.
Curiosity, for its part, commemorated the event with a pithy tweet:
I did a science! 1st contact science on rock target Jake. Here’s an action shot pic.twitter.com/pzcgH6Bk
— Curiosity Rover (@MarsCuriosity) September 22, 2012
A year later, the Curiosity team’s analysis of the data collected by these instruments, published today in Science, shows that they made a pretty lucky choice in finding a rock to start with. The rock, dubbed “Jake_M” (after engineer Jake Matijevic, who died a few days after Curiosity touched down), is unlike any rock previously found on Mars—and its composition intriguingly suggests that it formed after molten rock cooled quickly in the presence of underground water.
The new discovery was published as part of a special series of papers in Science that describe the initial geologic data collected by Curiosity’s full suite of scientific instrumentation. One of the other significant findings is a chemical analysis of a scoop of Martian soil—heated to 835 degrees Celsius inside the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument mechanism—showing that it contains between 1.5 and 3 percent water by weight, a level higher than scientists expected.
But what’s most exciting about the series of findings is the surprising chemical analysis of Jake_M. The researchers determined that it is likely igneous (formed by the solidification of magma) and, unlike any other igneous rocks previously found on Mars, has a mineral composition most similar to a class of basaltic rocks on Earth called mugearites.
“On Earth, we have a pretty good idea how mugearites and rocks like them are formed,” Martin Fisk, an Oregon State University geologist and co-author of the paper, said in a press statement. “It starts with magma deep within the Earth that crystallizes in the presence of one to two percent water. The crystals settle out of the magma, and what doesn’t crystallize is the mugearite magma, which can eventually make its way to the surface as a volcanic eruption.” This happens most frequently in underground areas where molten rock comes into contact with water—places like mid-ocean rifts and volcanic islands.
The fact that Jake_M closely resembles mugearites indicates that it likely took the same path, forming after other minerals crystallized in the presence of underground water and the remaining minerals were sent to the surface. This would suggest that, at least at some time in the past, Mars contained reserves of underground water.
The analysis is part of a growing body of evidence that Mars was once home to liquid water. Last September, images taken by Curiosity showed geologic features that suggested the one-time presence of flowing water at the surface. Here on Earth, analyses of several meteorites that originated on Mars have also indicated that, at some point long ago, the planet held reserves of liquid water deep underground.
This has scientists and members of the public excited, of course, because (at least as far as we know) water is a necessity for the evolution of life. If Mars was once a water-rich planet, as Curiosity’s findings increasingly suggest, it’s possible that life may have once evolved there long ago—and there may even be organic compounds or other remnants of life waiting to be found by the rover in the future.
August 28, 2013
If the phenomena of Star Trek, Area 51, Ancient Aliens, or War of the Worlds can be taken as anthropological clues, humanity is consumed with curiosity about the possibility of life beyond Earth. Do any of the 4,437 newly discovered extrasolar planets contain traces of life? What would these life forms look like? How would they function? If they came to Earth, would we share ET-esque embraces or would the visit be more a Battle Los Angeles style throw down?
Life outside of Earth has spawned endless interest, but less public interest seems to be given to how life on Earth began 3 to 4 billion years ago. But the two topics, it turns out, might be more connected than one would believe–in fact, it’s possible that life on Earth really began outside of Earth, on Mars.
At this year’s Goldschmidt conference in Florence, Steve Benner, a molecular biophysicist and biochemist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution will present this idea to an audience of geologists. He’s well aware that half the room will be adamantly against his idea. “People will probably throw things,” he laughs, hinting at a consciousness of how out-of-this-world his ideas sound. But there’s scientific basis for his assertion (PDF), a logical reason for why life maybe truly did begin on Mars.
Science holds a number of paradoxes: If there are an infinite number of stars in the sky, why is the night sky dark? How can light act as both a particle and a wave? If the French eat so much cheese and butter, why is the incidence of coronary disease in their country so low? The origins of life are no different; they, too, are dictated by two paradoxes: the tar paradox, and the water paradox. Both, according to Benner, make it difficult to explain the creation of life on Earth. But both, he also notes, can be solved by placing the creation of life on Mars.
The first, the tar paradox, is simple enough to understand. “If you put energy into organic material it turns to asphalt, not to life,” Benner explains. Without access to Darwinian evolution–that is, without organic molecules having the opportunity to reproduce and create offspring who themselves, mutations and all, are reproducible–organic matter that is bathed in energy (from sunlight or from geothermal heat) will turn into tar. Early Earth was full of organic materials–chains of carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen that are believed to be the building blocks of life. Given the tar paradox, these organic materials should have devolved into asphalt. “The question is, how is it possible that the organic materials on early Earth managed to leap from their asphaltic fate to something that had access to Darwinian evolution? Because once that happens–presumably–you’re off to the races, and then you can manage whatever environment you want,” Benner explains.
The second paradox is the so-called water paradox. The water paradox states that even though life needs water, if organic material could escape its asphaltic fate and move toward Darwinian evolution, you can’t assemble the necessary building blocks in a flood of water. The building blocks of life start with genetic polymers–the well-known player DNA and its less-famous but still very smart friend RNA. Experts agree that RNA was likely the first genetic polymer, partly because in the modern world, RNA plays such an important role in the manufacturing other organic compounds. “RNA is the key to the ribosome, which is what makes proteins. There’s almost no question that RNA, which is a molecule involved in catalysis, arose before proteins arose,” Benner explains. The difficulty is that for RNA to assemble into long strands–which is needed for genetics–you can’t have the assembly taking place in water. “Most people think that water is essential for life. Very few people understand how corrosive water is,” Benner says. For RNA, water is extremely corrosive–bonds cannot be made within water, preventing long-strands from forming.
However, Benner says that these paradoxes can be resolved with the help of two very important groups of minerals
. The first are borate minerals. Borate minerals–which contain the element boron–prevent life’s building blocks from devolving into tar if incorporated into organic compounds. Boron, as an element, is seeking electrons to make itself stable. It finds these in oxygen, and together the oxygen and boron form the mineral borate. But if the oxygen boron finds is already bonded to carbohydrates, the carbohydrates linked with boron form a complex organic molecule dotted with borate that’s less resistant to decomposition.
The second group of minerals that come into play
involve those that contain molybdate, a compound that consists of molybdenum and oxygen. Molybdenum, more famous for its conspiratorial relation to the Douglas Adams classic A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy than for its other properties, is crucial, because it takes the carbohydrates that borate stabilized, bonds to them and catalyzes a reaction which rearranges them into ribose: the R in RNA.
Which brings us–however circuitously–back to Mars. Both borate and molybdate are scarce and would have been especially scarce on early Earth. The molybdenum in molybdate is
highly oxidized, meaning that it needs electrons from oxygen or other readily available negatively charged ions to achieve stability. But early Earth was too oxygen-scarce to have readily created molybdate. Plus, returning to the water paradox, early Earth was quite literally a water world–with land making up only two to three percent of its surface. Borates are soluble in water–if early Earth was a flooded planet, as scientists believe, it would have been difficult for an already scarce element now diluted in a huge ocean to find ephemeral organic molecules to bond with. Moreover, Earth’s status as a water-logged planet makes it difficult for RNA to form, because that process can’t easily happen in water on its own.
These concepts become less of an issue on Mars, however. Though water was certainly present on Mars 3 to 4 billion years ago, it was never as abundant as it was on Earth, creating the possibility that Martian deserts–locations where borate and molybdate could concentrate–could have fostered the formation of long strands of RNA. Moreover, 4 billion years ago, Mars’ atmosphere contained much more oxygen than Earth’s. Further, recent analysis of a Martian meteorite confirms that boron was once present on Mars.
And, Benner believes, molybdate was there too. “It’s only when molybdenum becomes highly oxidized that it is able to influence how early life formed,”Benner explains. “Molybdate couldn’t have been available on Earth at the time life first began, because three billion years ago the surface of the Earth had very little oxygen, but Mars did.”
Benner believes that these factors imply that life originated on Mars, our closest neighbor in space equipped with all the right ingredients. But life wasn’t sustained there. “Of course Mars dried out. The process of drying was very important for life originating, but not sustaining,” Benner explains. Instead, a meteor would have to have hit Mars, projecting materials into space–and eventually those materials, including some building blocks of life, might have made it to Earth.
Would the sudden change in environment have been too harsh for the fledgling building blocks to survive
? Benner doesn’t think so. “Let’s say life starts on Mars, and becomes very happy in the Martian environment,” Benner explains. “A meteor comes to hit Mars, and the impact ejects rocks on which your predecessor is sitting. Then you land on Earth, and you discover that there is lots of water that you were treating as a scarce element. Will it find the environment adequate? It certainly appreciated the existence of enough water that it didn’t have to worry.”
So, sorry Lil Wayne, looks like it might be time to relinquish your claim to the fourth rock from the Sun. As Brenner notes, “The evidence seems to be building that we are actually all Martians.”
March 7, 2013
Roughly 3.5 billion years ago, Mars began to shift from a wetter, warmer climate to the dry and cold planet we see today. This period of geologic change, known as the Hesperian age, was a turbulent time. The red planet saw widespread volcanic eruptions and catastrophic flooding as melted ice rushed into wide craters, forming lakes. These natural disasters carved a network of basins into its surface called outflow channels, eroding the terrain and reshaping the landscape of the planet. The exact end of this geologic period in Mars’ history is unknown, but scientists give a rough estimate of 3 billion years ago.
Later, many of these outflow channels became covered with lava, burying evidence of Mars’ geologic history. But now, a new map of the planet’s subsurface shows for the first time what one of these buried channels looks like in three dimensions. The findings, published today in the journal Science, reconstruct the Marte Vallis, the largest of the youngest channels on Mars. Marte Vallis is located in the Elysium Planitia region, an expanse of plains along the equator and the youngest volcanic region on the planet.
To create the 3D map, the researchers used data from Shallow Radar, a device that probes for liquid or frozen water underneath Mars’ crust. Known as SHARAD, the technology is on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft, which is currently circling the planet to study its climate. SHARAD’s orbital sounding radar works in much the same way as medical imaging scans. It sends signals to the surface, some of which automatically bounce back to the spacecraft. The signals that don’t readily bounce back can penetrate Mars’ crust and register buried structures before returning to the device. The data appears in two-dimensional cross sections, which are then pieced together to build the 3D representation. In this manner, a deeply grooved set of channels was revealed.
The system of channels, which is somewhere between 10 million to half a billion years old, spans 60 miles in width and stretches for more than 600 miles in length. From what can be seen of Marte Vallis from the surface, the channels are similar in structure to more ancient channel systems traced to the Hesperian, but the lava that had obscured many of their features made it difficult for researchers to make accurate estimates about its depth.
The new data reveals that the scale of erosion for Marte Vallis had indeed been underestimated: the 25-mile-wide main channel is at least twice as deep than earlier approximations indicated. The map shows multiple perched channels which feed into the deeper and wider main channel. These channels once lay along a series of four islands, which floods eroded into teardrop-shaped hills.
The researchers found that the geometry of the features are similar to those of the planet’s oldest channels, which are less obscured by lava, making them easier to study. This also suggests that the Marte Vallis could have been carved entirely by water, says lead study author Gareth Morgan, a geologist at the National Air and Space Museum’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies. In fact, most Mars scientists accept that outflow channels on Mars were carved by water. Lava also carves out tunnels through thermal erosion heating up the terrain, but Morgan says that this process is implausible for the scale of erosion at the Marte Valle channels. The speed of rushing water is also more efficient at erosion that the flow of lava, which can get stuck on rock, Morgan says. In addition, lava creates tunnels that aren’t as wide—typically only several miles across—so collapsed tunnels couldn’t account for the broad size of the channels.
Using the map, researchers were also able to pinpoint the source of the
floodwater: a now buried portion of the Cerberus Fossae fracture, a series of fissures in the planet’s surface. The researchers posit that water from a reservoir deep below Mars’ surface was released by nearby tectonic or volcanic activity, and it worked quickly to form the channels. These channels would have been a short-lived affair,” Morgan says. “The fracture would have connected this groundwater to the surface. After a short duration of weeks or months, the source would have been exhausted.”
But why was water in that reservoir during a time when the rest of Mars is believed to have been dry? Water, the authors believe, could have collected in aquifers below the surface during the Hesperian. This water hypothetically could have remained stable in liquid form long after the Hesperian ended. Morgan feels that the 3D map could provide more
evidence to support this hypothesis, showing that Mars was wet place in the more recent—as opposed to far ancient—past.
More than 20 similar outflow channels are spread out on the surface of the planet, extending hundreds of miles in length. The most prominent are located in the Chryse Planitia, a circular volcanic plain in the northern hemisphere of Mars. The largest, the Kasei Valles, runs for 1,500 miles along the plain.
Cataclysmic floods like the ones that shaped Mars’ channels aren’t unique to the red planet. Approximately 14,000 years ago, the largest known flood on Earth sprang from Lake Missoula, a prehistoric body of water that existed at the end of the last Ice Age in present-day Montana. The waters eroded part of the landscape of Washington state, forming the Channeled Scablands, a terrain that resembles Martian outflow channels. Marte Vallis’ main channel is estimated to be between 226 and 371 feet deep, a depth that’s comparable to the Channeled Scablands.
So if Mars’ expansive outflow channels were formed by gushing water, the question remains: Where did it all ago?
Some of it vaporized, drifted to the planet’s poles, and precipitated as ice on polar caps, Morgan says. Similar to the ones we have on Earth, the polar ends on the Red Planet are covered in miles-thick layers of ice. The water also could have pooled into shallow areas below the surface, where it also froze—in 2008, NASA’s Phoenix mission confirmed that ice exists in the porous soil that makes up much of the planet’s surface.
Another possibility, Morgan says, is that the ancient water again escaped deep underground, forming a large reservoir that awaits its chance to flood again.
January 3, 2013
Last year, noted meteorite collector Jay Piatek traveled to Morocco and bought a single stone, less than a pound in weight, that had been discovered in the country some time earlier. When he passed it on to researchers at the University of New Mexico to perform a mineral analysis, they found something unexpected.
The meteor seemed to have originated on Mars, but the rock’s composition didn’t exactly match any of the well-studied meteorites from there found previously. When the researchers compared it to data from soil and rock samples obtained by Curiosity and other recent Martian rovers, though, they realized that rather than originating in the planet’s mantle, as the others had, it appeared to have come from the Martian crust.
Most intriguingly, when they analyzed the basaltic breccia rock even more closely, they discovered it contained a large quantity of water molecules locked in its crystalline structure. While previous studies of Martian meteorites have suggested the presence of water on the red planet, this sample’s analysis, published today in Science, revealed that it contained 10 times more water than any Martian meteorite examined before.
The discovery of the water molecules in the rock at concentrations of 6000 parts per million could indicate the presence of liquid water sometime during Mars’ history. “The high water content could mean there was an interaction of the rocks with surface water either from volcanic magma, or from fluids from impacting comets during that time,” study co-author Andrew Steele of the Carnegie Institute said in a statement.
Apart from the presence of water, the researchers say that information they’ve gleaned over the course of a year-long analysis of the meteor—the first ever linked to the Martian crust—could significantly impact our understanding of the planet’s geology as a whole. The meteorite is primarily composed of chunks of basalt cemented together, indicating that it formed from rapidly cooling lava, likely on the planet’s crust. While we’ve found meteorites from the Moon that match this composition, we haven’t seen anything like it from Mars previously.
Already, the researchers determined that the specimen is roughly 2.1 billion years-old, formed during Mars’ Amazonian epoch, a time period from which we had no previous rock samples. “It is the richest Martian meteorite geochemically,” Steele said. “Further analyses are bound to unleash more surprises.”