Surface of Mars an unlikely place for life after 600 million year drought, say scientists

Feb 03, 2012
Mars. Image: NASA

Mars may have been arid for more than 600 million years, making it too hostile for any life to survive on the planet's surface, according to researchers who have been carrying out the painstaking task of analysing individual particles of Martian soil. Dr Tom Pike, from Imperial College London, will discuss the team's analysis at a European Space Agency (ESA) meeting on February 7, 2012. The researchers have spent three years analysing data on Martian soil that was collected during the 2008 NASA Phoenix mission to Mars. Phoenix touched down in the northern arctic region of the planet to search for signs that it was habitable and to analyse ice and soil on the surface.

The results of the soil analysis at the Phoenix site suggest the surface of has been arid for hundreds of millions of years, despite the presence of ice and the fact that previous research has shown that Mars may have had a warmer and wetter period in its earlier history more than three billion years ago. The team also estimated that the soil on Mars had been exposed to liquid water for at most 5,000 years since its formation billions of years ago. They also found that Martian and Moon soil is being formed under the same extremely dry conditions.

and previous studies have proven that the soil on Mars is uniform across the planet, which suggests that the results from the team's analysis could be applied to all of Mars. This implies that liquid water has been on the surface of Mars for far too short a time for life to maintain a foothold on the surface.

Dr Pike, from the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Imperial, who is lead author on the study published in the journal , explains:

"We found that even though there is an abundance of ice, Mars has been experiencing a super-drought that may well have lasted hundreds of millions of years. We think the Mars we know today contrasts sharply with its earlier history, which had warmer and wetter periods and which may have been more suited to life. Future and ESA missions that are planned for Mars will have to dig deeper to search for evidence of life, which may still be taking refuge underground."

During the Phoenix mission, Dr Pike and his research group formed one of 24 teams based at mission control in the University of Arizona in the USA, operating part of the spacecraft's onboard laboratories. They analysed soil samples dug up by a robot arm, using an optical microscope to produce images of larger sand-sized particles, and an atomic-force microscope to produce 3D images of the surface of particles as small as 100 microns across. Since the end of the mission, the team has been cataloguing individual particle sizes to understand more about the history of the Martian soil.

In the study, the researchers looked for the microscopic clay particles that are formed when rock is broken down by water. Such particles are an important marker of contact between liquid water and the soil, forming a distinct population in the soil. The team found no such marker. They calculated that even if the few particles they saw in this size range were in fact clay, they made up less than 0.1 percent of the total proportion of the soil in the samples. On Earth, clays can make up to 50 percent or more of the soil content, so such a small proportion in the Martian samples suggests that the soil has had a very arid history.

They estimated that the soil they were analysing had only been exposed to liquid water for a maximum of 5,000 years by comparing their data with the slowest rate that clays could form on Earth.

The team found further evidence to support the idea that has been largely dry throughout its history by comparing soil data from Mars, Earth and the Moon. The researchers deduced that the soil was being formed in a similar way on Mars and the Moon because they were able to match the distribution of soil particle sizes. On Mars, the team inferred that physical weathering by the wind as well as meteorites breaks down the soil into smaller particles. On the Moon, meteorite impacts break down rocks into , as there is no or atmosphere to wear down the particles.

Explore further: Bad weather delays SpaceX launch with 3-D printer

More information: "Quantification of the dry history of the Martian soil inferred from in situ microscopy" Geophysical Research Letter, Vol. 38, December 2011 edition. For a full list of the authors and a copy of the paper: fileexchange.imperial.ac.uk/fi… 436/2011GL049896.pdf

Related Stories

Phoenix Scrapes to Icy Soil in Wonderland

Jun 30, 2008

NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander scraped to icy soil in the "Wonderland" area on Thursday, June 26, confirming that surface soil, subsurface soil and icy soil can be sampled at a single trench.

UK hardware to contribute to the exploration of Mars

Jul 25, 2007

The Martian surface will be explored for conditions favourable for past or present life thanks to micro-machine technology supplied by Imperial College London. The NASA mission, planned for August 2007, represents the first ...

Recommended for you

Internet moguls Musk, Bezos shake up US space race

23 hours ago

The space race to end America's reliance on Russia escalated this week with a multibillion dollar NASA award for SpaceX's Elon Musk and an unexpected joint venture for Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos.

Winter in the southern uplands of Mars

Sep 19, 2014

Over billions of years, the southern uplands of Mars have been pockmarked by numerous impact features, which are often so closely packed that they overlap. One such feature is Hooke crater, shown in this ...

Five facts about NASA's ISS-RapidScat

Sep 19, 2014

NASA's ISS-RapidScat mission will observe ocean wind speed and direction over most of the globe, bringing a new eye on tropical storms, hurricanes and typhoons. Here are five fast facts about the mission.

User comments : 10

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

deatopmg
1.8 / 5 (12) Feb 03, 2012
"...no such marker. They calculated that even if the few particles they saw in this size range were in fact clay, they made up less than 0.1 percent of the total proportion of the soil in the samples. On Earth, clays can make up to 50 percent or more of the soil content, so such a small proportion in the Martian samples suggests that the soil has had a very arid history."

This 1 (one) Phoenix site is being compared w/ the whole of Earth. Not good science. What of the many pictures of rover tracks showing wet/muddy terrain in low lying areas? ??
Argiod
1.3 / 5 (13) Feb 03, 2012
I'd rather spend time in Death Valley than on Mars; and I have no intention of visiting Death Valley in this lifetime. Find me a planet with the same, or similar, resources as Earth and you'll have my undivided attention.
Sinister1811
1.5 / 5 (8) Feb 03, 2012
After all these years, Mars is still a dry and dusty desert world.
kochevnik
2.1 / 5 (11) Feb 03, 2012
Humans are a puny species who haven't even managed to propel their asses out of the home planet's gravity for more than a few days. Nematodes probably know more about what constitutes a habitable planet.
PosterusNeticus
2.8 / 5 (9) Feb 04, 2012
This 1 (one) Phoenix site is being compared w/ the whole of Earth. Not good science.


They are analyzing the sample they have. The results are what they are. You should probably look up the word science.

What of the many pictures of rover tracks showing wet/muddy terrain in low lying areas? ??


There are exactly zero such pictures. Why? a) Wet soil on the surface of Mars isn't the sort of thing that would slip into obscurity, because b) in that thin atmosphere, water in a liquid state has no business existing. Ice, sure. Vapor, sure. But wet soil? That's a negative, ghostrider.
_nigmatic10
2.8 / 5 (10) Feb 04, 2012
The surface will not host life. This has been known for some time and kind of beating a dead horse over the issue. What the surface has been scanned for is past markers for life or for the presence of life below the surface. Sadly, without getting below the surface to find out, we will not find anything. This article is like someone standing in the middle of a desert at high noon with no tools and saying life never existed here. We must look harder.
Moebius
1 / 5 (5) Feb 05, 2012
600 million year drought - 600 million years of possible evolution too
Vendicar_Decarian
1 / 5 (2) Feb 05, 2012
Ponding in rover tracks?

http://www.newsci...ace.html
Henrik
Feb 05, 2012
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
yyz
not rated yet Feb 05, 2012
"Ponding in rover tracks?

http://www.newsci...ace.html"

Or not: http://www.newsci...ars.html

Seems the image in question shows terrain on the sloping side of a crater. The inclination is too great to allow standing water.
PosterusNeticus
3 / 5 (2) Feb 05, 2012
Ponding in rover tracks?


First words in the article:

Update: The researchers have retracted their claim about the possibility of standing water on Mars after readers pointed out the terrain lies on the sloped wall of a crater