Was Life on Mars Extinguished Prematurely by a Huge Impact?

by Ian O'Neill on October 5, 2008

Direct hit - could a huge impact on Mars have snuffed the chances of life? (Karen Carr)

A very deep impact (Karen Carr)

We keep sending missions to Mars with the key objective to search for past or present life. But what if a huge impact early in the Red Planet’s history hindered any future possibility for life to thrive? Recent studies into the Martian “crustal dichotomy” indicate the planet was struck by a very large object, possibly a massive asteroid. Now researchers believe that this same impact may have scrubbed any chance for life on Mars, effectively making the planet sterile. This asteroid may have penetrated the Martian crust so deep that it damaged the internal structure irreparably, preventing a strong magnetic field from enveloping the planet. The lack of a Mars magnetosphere thereby ended any chance for a nurturing atmosphere…

Mars looks odd. Early astronomers noticed it, and today’s observatories see it every time they look at the red globe. Mars has two faces. One face (the northern hemisphere) is composed of barren plains and smooth sand dunes; the other face (the southern hemisphere) is a chaotic, jagged terrain of mountains and valleys. It would appear the crustal dichotomy formed after a massive impact early in the development of Mars, leaving the planet geologically scarred for eternity. But say if this impact went beyond pure aesthetics? What if this planet-wide impact zone represents something a lot deeper?

To understand what might have happened to Mars, we have to first look at the Earth. Our planet has a powerful magnetic field that is generated near the core. Molten iron convects, dragging free electrons with it, setting up a huge dynamo outputting the strong dipolar magnetic field. As the magnetic field threads through the planet, it projects from the surface and reaches thousands of miles into space, forming a vast bubble. This bubble is known as the magnetosphere, protecting us from the damaging solar wind and prevents our atmosphere from eroding into space. Life thrives on this blue planet because Earth has a powerful magnetic solar wind defence.

Although Mars is smaller than Earth, scientists have often been at a loss to explain why there is no Martian magnetosphere. But according to the growing armada of orbiting satellites, measurements suggest that Mars did have a global magnetic field in the past. It has been the general consensus for some time that Mars’ magnetic field disappeared when the smaller planet’s interior cooled quickly and lost its ability to keep its inner iron in a convective state. With no convection comes a loss of the dynamo effect and therefore the magnetic field (and any magnetosphere) is lost. This is often cited as the reason why Mars does not have a thick atmosphere; any atmospheric gases have been eroded into space by the solar wind.

However, there may be a better explanation as to why Mars lost its magnetism. “The evidence suggests that a giant impact early in the planet’s history could have disrupted the molten core, changing the circulation and affecting the magnetic field,” said Sabine Stanley, assistant professor of physics at the University of Toronto, one of the scientists involved in this research. “We know Mars had a magnetic field which disappeared about 4 billion years ago and that this happened around the same time that the crustal dichotomy appeared, which is a possible link to an asteroid impact.”

During Mars’ evolution before 4 billion years ago, things may have looked a lot more promising. With a strong magnetic field, Mars had a thick atmosphere, protected from the ravages of the solar wind within its own magnetosphere. But, in an instant, a huge asteroid impact could have changed the course of Martian history forever.

Mars once had a much thicker atmosphere along with standing water and a magnetic field, so it would have been a very different place to the dry barren planet we see today.” – Monica Grady, professor of planetary and space sciences at the Open University.

Losing its magnetic field after the deep asteroid impact catastrophically damaged the internal workings of the planet, Mars quickly shed its atmosphere, thereby blocking its ability to sustain life in the 4 billion years since. What a sad story

Original source: Times Online (UK)

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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

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