The discovery of a frozen sea close to the equator of Mars has brought the possibility of life on Mars one step closer. Open University scientist Dr John Murray is among the scientists who made the discovery from the High Resolution Stereo Camera images on board the Mars Express probe – the first European mission to another planet.
Dr Murray, of the Department of Earth Sciences, said: ?The fact that there have been warm and wet places beneath the surface of Mars since before life began on Earth, and that some are probably still there, means that there is a possibility that primitive micro-organisms survive on Mars today. This mission has changed many of my long-held opinions about Mars ? we now have to go there and check it out?.
The water that formed the sea appears to have originated beneath the surface of Mars, and to have erupted from a series of fractures known as the Cerberus Fossae, from where it flowed down in a catastrophic flood, and collected in a vast area 800 x 900 km about 5 million years ago. It initially averaged 45 metres deep, making it about the same size and depth as the North Sea. It was the pack-ice which formed on the surface of the sea that drew the attention of Mars Express scientists.
The young age of this feature has caused excitement among scientists. Although formed at the time when early hominids on Earth were evolving from apes, this is very young in geological terms, and suggests that vast flooding events, which are known to have occurred from beneath Mars? surface throughout its geological history, are still continuing to happen. The presence of liquid water for thousands of millions of years, even beneath the surface, is a possible habitat in which primitive life may have developed, and might still be surviving now. Clearly this must now be considered as a prime site for future missions looking for life.
The discovery was made by Dr Murray, Jan-Peter Muller (University College London), Gerhard Neukum (Free University, Berlin & Principal Investigator) and a team of international scientists working on the pictures sent back from Mars, and is to appear in the scientific journal Nature.
Mars Express, Europe?s first ever space mission to another planet, entered the orbit of Mars successfully on Christmas Day 2003, and since January 2004 the high resolution stereo camera on board has been taking a massive number of stereo images of the surface from altitudes as low as 270 km, showing details down to 10 metres.
Original Source: Open University News Release (Word Document)