Ancient Mars Water Flows Hint Life was Once Possible
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January 30, 2013

Ancient Mars Water Flows Hint Life was Once Possible

 

            Mars_odyssey_themis_nili_fossae_olivine_desk

 

Ridges in impact craters on Mars appear to be fossils of cracks in the Martian surface, formed by minerals deposited by flowing water. Water flowing beneath the surface suggests life may once have been possible on Mars. Networks of narrow ridges found in impact craters on Mars appear to be the fossilized remnants of underground cracks through which water once flowed, according to a new analysis by researchers from Brown University. The study supports the idea that the subsurface environment on Mars once had an active hydrology and could be a good place to search for evidence of past life.

The ridges, many of them hundreds of meters in length and a few meters wide, had been noted in previous research, but how they had formed was not known. Saper and colleague, Fred Mustard, thought they might once have been faults and fractures that formed underground when impact events rattled the planet’s crust.

Water, if present in the subsurface, would have circulated through the cracks, slowly filling them in with mineral deposits, which would have been harder than the surrounding rocks. As those surrounding rocks eroded away over millions of years, the seams of mineral-hardened material would remain in place, forming the ridges seen today.

 

           Marswater2_0 (1)

To test their hypothesis the Brown team mapped over 4,000 ridges in two crater-pocked regions on Mars, Nili Fossae (image above) and Nilosyrtis. Using high-resolution images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the researchers noted the orientations of the ridges and composition of the surrounding rocks.

The orientation data is consistent with the idea that the ridges started out as fractures formed by impact events. A competing hypothesis suggests that these structures may have been sheets of volcanic magma intruding into the surrounding rock, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

At Nili Fossae, the orientations are similar to the alignments of large faults related to a mega-scale impact. At Nilosyrtis, where the impact events were smaller in scale, the ridge orientations are associated with each of the small craters in which they were found.

“This suggests that fracture formation resulted from the energy of localized impact events and are not associated with regional-scale volcanism,” Brown team member, Lee Saper said.

Importantly also found that the ridges exist exclusively in areas where the surrounding rock is rich in iron-magnesium clay, a mineral considered to be a telltale sign that water had once been present in the rocks.

“The association with these hydrated materials suggests there was a water source available,” Saper added. “That water would have flowed along the path of least resistance, which in this case would have been these fracture conduits.”

As that water flowed, dissolved minerals would have been slowly deposited in the conduits, in much the same way mineral deposits can build up and eventually clog drain pipes. That mineralized material would have been more resistant to erosion than the surrounding rock. And indeed, Saper and Mustard found that these ridges were only found in areas that were heavily eroded, consistent with the notion that these are ancient structures revealed as the weaker surrounding rocks were slowly peeled away by wind. Taken together, the results suggest the ancient Martian subsurface had flowing water and may have been a habitable environment.

“This gives us a point of observation to say there was enough fracturing and fluid flow in the crust to sustain at least a regionally viable subsurface hydrology,” Saper said. “The overarching theme of NASA’s planetary exploration has been to follow the water. So if in fact these fractures that turned into these ridges were flowing with hydrothermal fluid, they could have been a viable biosphere.”

Saper hopes that the Curiosity rover, currently making its way across its Gale Crater landing site, might be able to shed more light on these types of structures.

“In the site at Gale Crater, there are thought to be mineralized fractures that the rover will go up and touch,” Saper said. “These are very small and may not be exactly the same kind of feature we studied, but we’ll have the opportunity to crush them up and do chemical analysis on them. That could either bolster our hypothesis or tell us we need to explore other possibilities.”

The research was supported by a grant from NASA’s Rhode Island Space Grant Consortium and through a NASA subcontract with the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University.

The Daily Galaxy via Brown University 

Image Credit: NASA and Mustard Lab/Brown University

and themis.asu.edu

Comments

Water laden with "minerals" deposits in cracks to wi quartz gold veins, agate and jasper and gypsum seams and amethyst lined agate nodules from Brazil so this isn't particularly stunning news...nor is it that liquid water existed on Mars. Of COURSE life could have started GIVEN the organic soup needed to start it which Mars may and may not have had. Earth's organic soup of a sea formed life with a rich variety of protein links and carbohydrate compounds formed with methane, a predominant gas on early Earth before plants produced the then toxic O2. Did Mars have seas of life giving organic soup as Earth did and a rich atmosphere of methane to furnish carbon/hydrogen bonds? Likely not. Was Mars the right temperature as was Earth's soupy seas? Likely not.

Mars does have all the water borne geology one could expect, mineral deposits, secondary rocks such as sandstone and conglomerates, of course, you don't need a speck of life for that, all you need is running water and water laden with dissolved calcium/magnesium/iron ions with maybe some sulphur (gypsum type compounds) and/or dissolved silica to glue it all together.

What's the big push on life on Mars when it couldn't have possibly evolved much past a single cell stage? Is it that some think study on Mars which has been long since devoid of erosion to obliterate early life formation, could offer clues of Earth's initial kick start of life? Yes. Life on Mars could, not guaranteed, offer clues of life's kick start on Earth and hence other planets, solar systemic and extra solar sytemic.

I find this all a bit ho humm in that we already KNOW life has to (has to) form on literally hundreds of thousands or even millions of planets just in our galaxy anyway, so what? We'll never be able to eat an ET fruit nor smell an ET flower or view ET scenery in the first place unless we buckle down and get the time/space thing understood so we can go there in a few days time and endulge in ET vistas, ET grand canyons and munch on ET pizzas in ET malls, or devise instant communication to send photos online of our kids playing with ET kids in ET amuzement parks. So if we can't ever do this, why the push on ET life anyway when we already know it exists and we are not the only ones looking "up"?

Could humans endure the trip of time/space to planet X, and live through the intense physics about which we know nothing to provide us with the trip? Possibly not, so if trips are impossible, we're Earthbound forever, delicate little organisms as we are. So I say, less funding on ET stuff and more on our own planet. It's not that I'm disinterested in ET stuff, it fascinates me but there are only so many funds to go around and priority is Earth in my humble opinion, while some can be shunted off for ET stuff to satisfy slick kaolin paper science magazines and Hollywood food for scifi flickz.


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