Mars is often referred to as a desert world, and for good reason – its surface is barren, dry and cold. While water was abundant in the distant past, it has long since disappeared from the surface, although ice, snow, frost and fog are still common. Other than liquid brines possibly trickling at times, all of Mars’ remaining water is now frozen in permafrost and in the polar ice caps. It has long been thought that the harsh conditions would make current life unlikely at best, and now a new study reaffirms that view.
The results come from continued analysis of the data from the Phoenix lander mission, which landed in the arctic region near the north pole of Mars in 2008. They suggest that Mars has experienced a prolonged drought for at least the past 600 million years.
According to Dr. Tom Pike from Imperial College London, “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 NASA 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.”
The team reached their conclusions by studying tiny microscopic particles in the soil samples dug up by Phoenix, which had been photographed by the lander’s atomic-force microscope. 3-D images were produced of particles as small as 100 microns across. They were searching specifically for clay mineral particles, which form in liquid water. The amount found in the soil would be a clue as to how long the soil had been in contact with water. It was determined that less than 0.1 percent of the soil samples contained clay particles, pointing to a long, arid history in this area of Mars.
Since the soil type on Mars appears to be fairly uniform across the planet, the study suggests that these conditions have been widespread on the planet, and not just where Phoenix landed. It’s worth keeping in mind though that soil particles and dust on Mars can be distributed widely by sandstorms and dust devils (and some sandstorms on Mars can be planet-wide in size). The study also implies that Mars’ soil may have only been exposed to liquid water for about 5,000 years, although some other studies would tend to disagree with that assessment.
It should also be noted that more significant clay deposits have been found elsewhere on Mars, including the exact spot where the Opportunity rover is right now; these richer deposits would seem to suggest a different history in different regions. Because of this, and for the other reasons cited above, it may be premature then to extrapolate the Phoenix results to the entire planet, similar soil types notwithstanding. While this study is important, more definitive results might be obtained when physical soil samples can actually be brought back to Earth for analysis, from multiple locations. More sophisticated rovers and landers like the Curiosity rover currently en route to Mars, will also be able to conduct more in-depth analysis in situ.
The Phoenix soil samples were also compared to soil samples from the Moon – the distribution of particle sizes was similar between the two, indicating that they formed in a similar manner. Rocks on Mars are weathered down by wind and meteorites, while on the airless Moon, only meteorite impacts are responsible. On Earth of course, such weathering is caused primarily by water and wind.
As for the life question, any kind of surface dwelling organisms would have to be extremely resilient, much like extremophiles on Earth. It should be kept in mind, however, that these results apply to surface conditions; it is still thought possible that any early life on the planet could have continued to thrive underground, protected from the intense ultraviolet light from the Sun, and where some liquid water could still exist today.
Given Mars’ much wetter early history, the search for evidence of past or present life will continue, but we may have to dig deep to find it.