In search for water on Mars, clues from Antarctica

Dec 10, 2007
In search for water on Mars, clues from Antarctica
Site in Pearse Valley of the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica. Saltwater seeped to the surface and evaporated, leaving behind a salty crust. Photo courtesy of Ohio State University.

Scientists have gathered more evidence that suggests flowing water on Mars -- by comparing images of the red planet to an otherworldly landscape on Earth.

In recent years, scientists have examined images of several sites on Mars where water appears to have flowed to the surface and left behind a trail of sediment. Those sites closely resemble places where water flows today in the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica , the new study has found.

The new study bolsters the notion that liquid water could be flowing beneath the surface of Mars. And since bacteria thrive in the liquid water flowing in the Dry Valleys, the find suggests that bacterial life could possibly exist on Mars as well.

Researchers have used the Dry Valleys as an analogy for Mars for 30 years, explained Berry Lyons, professor of earth sciences and director of the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University.

Lyons is lead principal investigator for the National Science Foundation's Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network, a collaboration of more than 1,800 scientists who study the ecology of sites around the world.

One of the LTER sites is in the Dry Valleys, a polar desert in Antarctica with year-round saltwater flowing beneath the surface. With temperatures that dip as low as negative 85 degrees Fahrenheit, it's as cold as the Martian equator, and its iron-rich soil gives it a similar red color.

“If you looked at pictures of both landscapes side by side, you couldn't tell them apart,” Lyons said.

In the new study, LTER scientists did just that -- they compared images of water flows in the Dry Valleys to images of gullies on Mars that show possible evidence of recent water flow.

Team member Peter Doran of the University of Illinois at Chicago presented the results Tuesday, December 11, 2007, at the American Geophysical Union meeting at San Francisco .

The scientists' conclusion: the Martian sites closely resemble sites in the Dry Valleys where water has seeped to the surface.

The water in the Dry Valleys can be very salty -- it's full of potassium chloride, the same kind of salt we sprinkle on roadways to melt ice. That's why the water doesn't freeze. Natural springs form from melted ground ice or buried glacier ice, and the saltwater percolates to the surface.

“Even in the dead of winter, there are locations with salty water in the Dry Valleys ,” Lyons said. “Two months a year, we even have lakes of liquid water covered in ice.”

But after the water reaches the surface, it evaporates, leaving behind salt and sediment.

The same thing would happen on Mars, he added.

Because the suspected sediment sites on Mars closely resemble known sediment sites in the Dry Valleys, Lyons and his colleagues think that liquid saltwater is likely flowing beneath the Martian surface.

Lyons, who has led many expeditions to Antarctica, said that his team will continue to compare what they learn on Earth to any new evidence of water uncovered on Mars.

As they walk across the Dry Valleys, they can't help but compare the two.

“There's just something about that landscape, about being so far from civilization, that makes you think about other worlds,” he said.

Source: Ohio State University, by Pam Frost Gorder

Explore further: Collaboration aims to reduce, treat vision problems in astronauts

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Robotic rock climbers could uncover clues to Mars' past

Aug 04, 2014

A robot that can scale the faces of steep cliffs might one day help explore Mars and find signs of life. The latest experiments with this "Cliffbot" showed it could help examine places otherwise difficult ...

Exploring Mars in low Earth orbit

Jul 31, 2014

In their quest to understand life's potential beyond Earth, astrobiologists study how organisms might survive in numerous environments, from the surface of Mars to the ice-covered oceans of Jupiter's moon, ...

Excavated ship traced to Colonial-era Philadelphia

Jul 29, 2014

Four years ago this month, archeologists monitoring the excavation of the former World Trade Center site uncovered a ghostly surprise: the bones of an ancient sailing ship. Tree-ring scientists at Columbia ...

Antarctic lakes theory dries up

Jul 22, 2014

(Phys.org) —Antarctica is the driest continent on Earth, and always has been, with new research showing the previous "mega-lake theory" holds no water.

Recommended for you

EUV calibrations for satellite sensors

20 hours ago

Thanks to precision calibration measurements recently performed at NIST, satellites may soon be looking at sunlight with new and improved vision.

Image: 25 years ago, Voyager 2 captured images of Neptune

20 hours ago

NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft gave humanity its first glimpse of Neptune and its moon Triton in the summer of 1989. This picture of Neptune was produced from the last whole planet images taken through the green ...

User comments : 0