Research suggests Mars once had more water than Earth's Arctic ocean

March 5, 2015
NASA scientists have determined that a primitive ocean on Mars held more water than Earth's Arctic Ocean and that the Red Planet has lost 87 percent of that water to space. Credit: NASA/GSFC

A primitive ocean on Mars held more water than Earth's Arctic Ocean, according to NASA scientists who, using ground-based observatories, measured water signatures in the Red Planet's atmosphere.

Scientists have been searching for answers to why this vast supply left the surface. Details of the observations and computations appear in Thursday's edition of Science magazine.

"Our study provides a solid estimate of how much water Mars once had, by determining how much water was lost to space," said Geronimo Villanueva, a scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and lead author of the new paper. "With this work, we can better understand the history of water on Mars."

Perhaps about 4.3 billion years ago, Mars would have had enough water to cover its entire surface in a liquid layer about 450 feet (137 meters) deep. More likely, the water would have formed an ocean occupying almost half of Mars' northern hemisphere, in some regions reaching depths greater than a mile (1.6 kilometers).

The new estimate is based on detailed observations made at the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile, and the W.M. Keck Observatory and NASA Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii. With these powerful instruments, the researchers distinguished the chemical signatures of two slightly different forms of water in Mars' atmosphere. One is the familiar H2O. The other is HDO, a naturally occurring variation in which one hydrogen is replaced by a heavier form, called deuterium.

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By comparing the ratio of HDO to H2O in water on Mars today and comparing it with the ratio in water trapped in a Mars meteorite dating from about 4.5 billion years ago, scientists can measure the subsequent atmospheric changes and determine how much water has escaped into space.

The team mapped H2O and HDO levels several times over nearly six years, which is equal to approximately three Martian years. The resulting data produced global snapshots of each compound, as well as their ratio. These first-of-their-kind maps reveal regional variations called microclimates and seasonal changes, even though modern Mars is essentially a desert.

The research team was especially interested in regions near Mars' north and south poles, because the polar ice caps hold the planet's largest known water reservoir. The water stored there is thought to capture the evolution of Mars' water during the wet Noachian period, which ended about 3.7 billion years ago, to the present.

From the measurements of atmospheric water in the near-polar region, the researchers determined the enrichment, or relative amounts of the two types of water, in the planet's permanent ice caps. The enrichment of the ice caps told them how much water Mars must have lost – a volume 6.5 times larger than the volume in the polar caps now. That means the volume of Mars' early ocean must have been at least 20 million cubic kilometers (5 million cubic miles).

Based on the surface of Mars today, a likely location for this water would be in the Northern Plains, considered a good candidate because of the low-lying ground. An ancient ocean there would have covered 19 percent of the planet's surface. By comparison, the Atlantic Ocean occupies 17 percent of Earth's surface.

"With Mars losing that much water, the planet was very likely wet for a longer period of time than was previously thought, suggesting it might have been habitable for longer," said Michael Mumma, a senior scientist at Goddard and the second author on the paper.

NASA is studying Mars with a host of spacecraft and rovers under the agency's Mars Exploration Program, including the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft, and the MAVEN orbiter, which arrived at the Red Planet in September 2014 to study the planet's upper atmosphere.

In 2016, a Mars lander mission called InSight will launch to take a first look into the deep interior of Mars. The agency also is participating in ESA's (European Space Agency) 2016 and 2018 ExoMars missions, including providing telecommunication radios to ESA's 2016 orbiter and a critical element of the astrobiology instrument on the 2018 ExoMars rover. NASA's next rover, heading to Mars in 2020, will carry instruments to conduct unprecedented science and exploration technology investigations on the Red Planet.

NASA's Mars Exploration Program seeks to characterize and understand Mars as a dynamic system, including its present and past environment, climate cycles, geology and biological potential. In parallel, NASA is developing the human spaceflight capabilities needed for future round-trip missions to Mars in the 2030s.

Explore further: NASA spacecraft completes 40,000 Mars orbits

More information: Strong water isotopic anomalies in the Martian atmosphere: probing current and ancient reservoirs, Science, 2015.

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1.6 / 5 (7) Mar 06, 2015
The loss of water as a result of global warming, no doubt. Where are the PEOPLE that caused that?
1 / 5 (1) Mar 06, 2015
And so Zeus, Emperor of the planets said unto Mars: "Use it or lose it."
5 / 5 (6) Mar 06, 2015
Yay! Let us now look deep into the crust for life that may have retreated there. First look will be ExoMars landing 2019, even though InSight landing 2016 will look at the thermal conditions and inform on long term martian habitability.

This discovery is of course consistent with the latest Curiosity find of a potential million year old Gale lake which would necessitate an extensive martian water coverage (or the lake would dry out fast). But it is also consistent with its argon isotope find of Mars having lost ~ 80 % of its initial atmosphere.

@Joker: Your tag indicates you are supposed to be funny, not irrelevant. Mars has had global cooling, since loss of greenhouse gases would act in the opposite direction of Earth recent climate regime. Also, it is probably an abiotic loss due to its small gravity et cetera.
1 / 5 (2) Mar 06, 2015
Torbjorn Larsson OM - I realize that the work of Dr. J. Marvin Herndon has been entriely dismissed and vilified since he first published in 1992, but please consider the plausibility of internal mechanisms giving all the planets their sources of the simple molecules of life (O2, CO2, methane, water, ammonia) as well as the increases we are currently experiencing in geothermal heat. See USGS data for the increasing numbers of Richter 6 and higher earthquakes since 1975. Significant geothermal energy being released, and the added heat is opening up the hydrocarbon reserviors so oil is being extracted in abundance. Dr. Herndon's premise is all planets and stars formed by accretion, with heaviest elements at the center. The heaviest elements on the Periodic Table are fissionable Actinides. This fission core ignites stars in fusion like a thermonuclear device, produces all the lighter elements within each planet, provides the variable source of internal heat.
1 / 5 (2) Mar 06, 2015
The loss of water as a result of global warming, no doubt. Where are the PEOPLE that caused that?

went to settle in new homes (planets). probably we should do the same thing since its already known that we cannot stop global warming here on earth. We started hunting for planets in goldilocks zone for that same reason !
1 / 5 (2) Mar 07, 2015
Faint young Sun paradox, and remember Mars is 1/9 mass of Earth, so much less internal heat available. How was it supposedly warmer in the past?

Sun would have been 30% cooler (supposedly) during that same time period. How does an atmosphere make up a difference of 300 watts in forcing?
not rated yet Mar 09, 2015
This is so informative.! Thank you for your hard work. How can we re-establish a water supply, and atmosphere, so water is not lost to space? Generate a better magnetic field perhaps?

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