NASA research offers new prospect of water on Mars

July 2, 2011

( -- NASA scientists are seeing new evidence that suggests traces of water on Mars are under a thin varnish of iron oxide, or rust, similar to conditions found on desert rocks in California's Mojave Desert.

Mars could be spotted with many more patches of carbonates than originally suspected. Carbonates are minerals that form readily in large bodies of water and can point to a planet's wet history. Although only a few small outcrops of carbonates have been detected on , scientists believe many more examples are blocked from view by the rust. The findings appear in the Friday July 1, online edition of the .

"The plausibility of life on Mars depends on whether liquid water dotted its landscape for thousands or millions of years," said Janice Bishop, a planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center at the SETI Institute at Moffett Field, Calif., and the paper's lead author. "It's possible that an important clue, the presence of carbonates, has largely escaped the notice of investigators trying to learn if liquid water once pooled on the Red Planet."

Scientists conduct in desert regions because the extremely dry conditions are similar to Mars. Researchers realized the importance of the varnish earlier this year when Bishop and Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at Ames investigated carbonate rocks coated with iron oxides collected in a location called Little Red Hill in the Mojave Desert.

"When we examined the carbonate rocks in the lab, it became evident that an skin may be hindering the search for clues to the Red Planet's hydrological history," McKay said. "We found that the varnish both altered and partially masked the spectral signature of the carbonates."

McKay also found dehydration-resistant under the rock varnish. Scientists believe the varnish may have extended temporarily the time that Mars was habitable, as the planet's surface slowly dried up.

"The organisms in the are protected from deadly ultraviolet light by the iron oxide coating," McKay said. "This survival mechanism might have played a role if Mars once had life on the surface."

In addition to being used to help characterize Mars' water history, carbonate rocks also could be a good place to look for the signatures of early life on the Red Planet. Every mineral is made up of atoms that vibrate at specific frequencies to produce a unique fingerprint that allows scientists to accurately identify its composition.

Research data were similar to observations provided by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft, as it orbited an ancient region of Mars called Nili Fossae. The area revealed the strongest carbonate signature ever found. Although MRO recently detected small patches of carbonates, approximately 200-500 feet wide, on the Martian surface, the Mojave study suggests more patches may have been overlooked because their spectral signature could have been changed by the pervasive varnish.

"To better determine the extent of carbonate deposits on Mars, and by inference the ancient abundance of liquid water, we need to investigate the spectral properties of carbonates mixed with other minerals," Bishop said.

The varnish is so widespread that NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, used a motorized grinding tool to remove the rust-like overcoat on rocks before other instruments could inspect them. In 2010, scientists using data collected by Spirit also identified a small carbonate outcrop at a crater called Gusev. NASA's newest and most capable rover, the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity is schedule to launch in November. It will use tools to study whether the Mars had environmental conditions favorable for supporting microbial life and favorable for preserving clues about whether life existed.

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2.5 / 5 (8) Jul 02, 2011
There probably is life on Mars, and to deny it and send astronauts there under the assumption of a sterile planet would be foolhardy. A good test would be to use a 'canary in a coal mine' test. Hard luck for the canary/whatever test to check for not only the presence of life but really to see if our life form DNA life structures are tasty to Martian microbes, for instance. This planet is quite full of surprises and we are full of cultural earthcentricism of a kind that can get us killed or exposed to an epidemic if we are too smug. Chances are also that the northern purported archaic ocean really is still there, frozen; and that whatever life existed in it once may still lay there dormant, or under that ice layer in whatever liquid water may exist, heated by the planet below and sheltered by the thick ice maybe miles thick. Red surface, lots of oxides, and that is probably where the planet's old oxygen atmosphere is locked up.
3.7 / 5 (13) Jul 02, 2011
There probably is life on Mars, and to deny it and send astronauts there under the assumption of a sterile planet would be foolhardy.

Dude, they went to the Moon and acted as if it were not sterile. What leads you to believe Mars would be considered otherwise?
4 / 5 (4) Jul 02, 2011
Even if Mars still has life clinging on somewhere, deeply buried or close to the surface, even if the life forms found there were based on DNA similar to Earth life, billions of years of isolation would make microbes there very likely to have no effect on us, humans, animals, fish,plants,insects, or birds. They would have evolved in two extremely different environments and would therefore have a much different predator prey relation than Earth life. I am talking about specific shapes that microbes need to attack another organism, they would be like round shaped lego's trying to fit into square lego pegs.
1.3 / 5 (10) Jul 02, 2011
There probably is life on Mars, and to deny it and send astronauts there under the assumption of a sterile planet would be foolhardy.

Dude, they went to the Moon and acted as if it were not sterile. What leads you to believe Mars would be considered otherwise?

The fact it hasn't taken on different shapes or forms (like it has on Earth), and hasn't spread across the vast, wide Martian landscape. Here on Earth, life can be found pretty much everywhere, because of billions of years of evolution from single-celled organisms. I'm surprised that Martian micro-organisms (if they exist) haven't eventually clumped together and formed into multicellular organisms, over the billions of years (I'm assuming) that they should have evolved, and eventually formed vast ecosystems. Today, there seems to be no sign of that having ever happened.
1 / 5 (6) Jul 02, 2011
I agree with Sonhouse. If there is life on Mars somewhere, it probably wouldn't be able to affect us, because it wouldn't have evolved the ability to do so.
1 / 5 (12) Jul 03, 2011
There probably isn't any life on Mars. OK, I know you've chosen not to believe in the bible, but that's how it turns out if you read it carefully. The only life in the universe that we can know of is right here on earth because this is where the creator first planted life and that life was spoiled by sin.
Now, just as a nice sinking thought for planetary formation: Why is it that BOTH Mars and Venus are veritable deserts [Venus could be called hell] with zero to extremely scarce water to be found whilst here on the middle, in-between planet there's enough water to drown the planet a mile deep?
Where does all the water comes from? Please spare me the comet bomdardment story because it just rings very hollow - the water makeup is completely different.

@Sinister1811-life cannot arise spontaneously and cannot evolve from a single cellular organism, as much as you and all evolutionists would like it to, it's simply not possible physically, chemically, biologically and mathematically.
1 / 5 (6) Jul 03, 2011
I think they still need to do further tests. Someday they'll reach a conclusion on whether or not there's life on Mars. (And I hope there is!). And if there is, then I hope that we find out... Soon.
1 / 5 (3) Jul 03, 2011
@kevinrts-as usual, you're way off base. water existed in the dust rings around our young star and coeleced on our planet most likely. as far as I know, the late meteor bombardments have pretty much been shown to not be the case (although it should be noted that asteroids/comets today DO ALSO CARRY WATER). Proof itself exists in the fact that we can see the water in the rings around other young stars (not to mention the aformentioned fact its in MANY other celestial bodies, including moons). So there you go...some invisible schmuck did NOT put it here. It's ALL OVER space...everywhere....
Even if that weren't the case, you fail to consider what the excessive heating of atmospheric impact would do to the water, in other words, how it would be chemically altered by such an interaction.
You're also mistaken about it not being able to evolve from a single celled organism. Mutations DO OCCUR, which all in all my friend, is evolution. Like it or not, its a proven fact..even the pope agrees..
5 / 5 (1) Jul 03, 2011
Let's plant some algae and moss in there and watch what happens. I bet there are extremophiles in that water who might like it.
4.7 / 5 (3) Jul 03, 2011
Kevin - do you actually listen to yourself/read what you type? I feel very sorry for you. By holding onto these nonsensical stories as actual fact and plugging your ears to anything that says otherwise, you're effectively missing out on these amazing discoveries that are helping us to learn about the incredible universe around us. I have no problem with religion or people that follow it, but there is such a thing as moderation.

I'm thrilled by the idea that Mars was once possibly host to some form of life and covered in water, and they have several different ways to look further into this. It grieves me to think that you, and others like you, will never know how that feels.
1 / 5 (3) Jul 04, 2011
Given the astronomical measurements showing that Mars' temperature has been rising, and that the Earth's temperature rise has been blamed on man-made atmospheric pollution, the ONLY LOGICAL CONCLUSIONS are:
#1) The layer of rusted/oxidized iron is from the rusting/rusted Martian automobiles.
and #2) Earth-made global warming is worsening the situation for the Martian microbes that may still be surviving.
and #3) The relatively lifeless Martian environment is NOW PROVEN TO NEXT HAPPEN HERE ON EARTH!
1 / 5 (4) Jul 04, 2011
With the call for either NASA de-funding or outright dismantling of NASA, and NASA involvement in the AGW hoax, it wouldn't be a stretch to think these new findings are a ploy to make the public believe NASA is still relevant and "back on track".
1 / 5 (5) Jul 10, 2011
Let's plant some algae and moss in there and watch what happens. I bet there are extremophiles in that water who might like it.

I agree. If there isn't life there already, we should seed the planet with life. Would make it a much more interesting place. The only problem for planting single-celled extremophile organisms on Mars and watching them evolve is that evolution takes millions of years. lol But then again, we could terraform it, and seed it with Earth life, such as plants and animals.
5 / 5 (2) Jul 10, 2011
We should def terraform mars

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