For centuries, scientists have speculated about the existence of life on Mars. But it was only within the past 15 years that the search for life (past and present) really began to heat up. It was at this time that methane, an organic molecule that is associated with many forms of life here on Earth (i.e. a “biosignature”) was detected in Mars’ atmosphere.
Since that time, attempts to study Mars’ atmospheric methane have produced varying results. In some cases, methane has been found that was several times its normal concentrations; in others, it was absent. Seeking to answer this mystery, an interdisciplinary team from Aarhus Universityrecently conducted a study where they investigated a possible mechanism for the removal of methane from Mars’ atmosphere.
For some time, scientists have known that Mars was once a much warmer and wetter environment than it is today. However, between 4.2 and 3.7 billion years ago, its atmosphere was slowly stripped away, which turned the surface into the cold and desiccated place we know today. Even after multiple missions have confirmed the presence of ancient lake beds and rivers, there are still unanswered questions about how much water Mars once had.
One of the most important unanswered questions is whether or not large seas or an ocean ever existed in the northern lowlands. According to a new study by an international team of scientists, the Hypanis Valles ancient river system is actually the remains of a river delta. The presence of this geological feature is an indication that this river system once emptied into an ancient Martian sea in Mars’ northern hemisphere.
Mars modern landscape is something of a paradox. It’s many surface features are very similar to those on Earth that are caused by water-borne erosion. But for the life of them, scientists cannot imagine how water could have flown on Mars’ cold and desiccated surface for most of Mars’ history. Whereas Mars was once a warmer, wetter place, it has had a very thin atmosphere for billions of years now, which makes water flow and erosion highly unlikely.
In fact, while the surface of Mars periodically becomes warm enough to allow for ice to thaw, liquid water would boil once exposed to the thin atmosphere. However, in a new study led by an international team of researchers from the UK, France and Switzerland, it has been determined that a different kind of transport process involving the sublimation of water ice could have led to the Martian landscape becoming what it is today.
The study, which was led Dr. Jan Raack – a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow at The Open University – was recently published in the scientific journal Nature Communications. Titled “Water Induced Sediment Levitation Enhances Downslope Transport on Mars”, this research study consisted of experiments that tested how processes on Mars’ surface could allow water transport without it being in liquid form.
To conduct their experiments, the team used the Mars Simulation Chamber, an instrument at The Open University that is capable of simulating the atmospheric conditions on Mars. This involved lowering the atmospheric pressure inside the chamber to what is normal for Mars – about 7 mbar, compared to 1000 mbar (1 bar or 100 kilopascals) here on Earth – while also adjusting temperatures.
On Mars, temperatures range from a low of -143 °C (-255 °F) during winter at the poles to a high of 35 °C (95 °F) at the equator during midday in the summer. Having recreated these conditions, the team found that when water ice exposed to the simulated Martian atmosphere, it would not simply melt. Instead, it would become unstable and begin violently boiling off.
However, the team also found that this process would be capable of moving large amounts of sand and sediment, which would effectively “levitate” on the boiling water. This means that, compared to Earth, relatively small amounts of liquid water are capable of moving sediment across the surface of Mars. These levitating pockets of sand and debris would be capable of forming tje large dunes, gullies, recurring slope lineae, and other features observed on Mars.
In the past, scientists have indicated how these features were the result of sediment transportation down slopes, but were unclear as to the mechanisms behind them. As Dr. Jan Raack explained in a OUNews press release:
“Our research has discovered that this levitation effect caused by boiling water under low pressure enables the rapid transport of sand and sediment across the surface. This is a new geological phenomenon, which doesn’t happen on Earth, and could be vital to understanding similar processes on other planetary surfaces.”
Through these experiments, Dr. Raack and his colleagues were able to shed light on how conditions on Mars could allow for features that we tend to associate with flowing water here on Earth. In addition to helping to resolve a somewhat contentious debate concerning Mars’ geological history and evolution, this study is also significant when it comes to future exploration missions.
Dr. Raack acknowledges the need for more research to confirm their study’s conclusions, and indicated that the ESA’s ExoMars 2020 Rover will be well-situated to conduct it once it is deployed :
“This is a controlled laboratory experiment, however, the research shows that the effects of relatively small amounts of water on Mars in forming features on the surface may have been widely underestimated. We need to carry out more research into how water levitates on Mars, and missions such as the ESA ExoMars 2020 Rover will provide vital insight to help us better understand our closest neighbour.”
Over the past few decades, our ongoing studies of Mars have revealed some very fascinating things about the planet. In the 1960s and early 70s, the Mariner probes revealed that Mars was a dry, frigid planet that was most likely devoid of life. But as our understanding of the planet has deepened, it has come to be known that Mars once had a warmer, wetter environment that could have supported life.
This in turn has inspired multiple missions whose purpose it has been to find evidence of this past life. The key questions in this search, however, are where to look and what to look for? In a new study led by researchers from the University of Kansas, a team of international scientists recommended that future missions should look for vanadium. This rare element, they claim, could point the way towards fossilized evidence of life.
To be clear, finding signs of life on a planet like Mars is no easy task. As Craig Marshall indicated in a University of Kansas press release:
“You’ve got your work cut out if you’re looking at ancient sedimentary rock for microfossils here on Earth – and even more so on Mars. On Earth, the rocks have been here for 3.5 billion years, and tectonic collisions and realignments have put a lot of stress and pressure on rocks. Also, these rocks can get buried, and temperature increases with depth.”
In their paper, Marshall and his colleagues recommend that missions like NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, the ESA’s ExoMars 2020 rover, and other proposed surface missions could combine Raman spectroscopy with the search for vanadium to find evidence of fossilized life. On Earth, this element has been found in crude oils, asphalts, and black shales that have been formed by the slow decay of biological organic material.
In addition, paleontologists and astrobiologists have used Raman spectroscopy – a technique that reveals the cellular compositions of samples – on Mars for some time to search for signs of life. In this respect, the addition of vanadium would provide material that would act as a biosignature to confirm the existence of organic life in samples under study. As Marshall explained:
“People say, ‘If it looks like life and has a Raman signal of carbon, then we have life. But, of course, we know there can be carbonaceous materials made in other processes — like in hydrothermal vents — consistent with looking like microfossils that also have some carbon signal. People also make wonderful carbon structures artificially that look like microfossils — exactly the same. So, we’re at a juncture now where it’s really hard to tell if there’s life only based on morphology and Raman spectroscopy.”
This is not the first time that Marshall and his co-authors have advocated using vanadium to search for signs of life. Such was the subject of a presentation they made at the Astrobiology Science Conference in 2015. What’s more, Marshall and his team emphasize that it would be possible to perform this technique using instruments that are already part of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission.
Their proposed method also involves new technique known as X-ray fluorescence microscopy, which looks at elemental composition. To test this technique, the team examined thermally altered organic-walled microfossils which were once organic materials )called acritarchs). From their data, they confirmed that traces of vanadium are present within microfossils that were indisputably organic in origin.
“We tested acritarchs to do a proof-of-concept on a microfossil where there’s no shadow of a doubt that we’re looking at preserved ancient biology,” Marshall said. “The age of this microfossil we think is Devonian. These guys are aquatic microorganisms — they’re thought to be microalgae, a eukaryotic cell, more advanced than bacterial. We found the vanadium content you’d expect in cyanobacterial material.”
These microfossilized bit of life, they argue, are probably not very distinct from the kinds of life that could have existed on Mars billions of years ago. Other scientific research has also indicated that vanadium is the result of organic compounds (like chlorophyll) from living organisms undergoing a transformation process caused by heat and pressure (i.e. diagenetic alteration).
In other words, after living creatures die and become buried in sediment, vanadium forms in their remains as a result of being buried under more and more layers of rock – i.e. fossilization. Or, as Marshall explained it:
“Vanadium gets complexed in the chlorophyll molecule. Chlorophylls typically have magnesium at the center — under burial, vanadium replaces the magnesium. The chlorophyll molecule gets entangled within the carbonaceous material, thus preserving the vanadium. It’s like if you have a rope stored in your garage and before you put it away you wrap it so you can unravel it the next time you need it. But over time on the garage floor it becomes tangled, things get caught in it. Even when you shake that rope hard, things don’t come out. It’s a tangled mess. Similarly, if you look at carbonaceous material there’s a tangled mess of sheets of carbon and you’ve got the vanadium mixed in.”
At present, their research appears to have attracted the interesting of the European Space Agency. Howell Edwards, who also conducts research using Raman spectroscopy (and who’s work has been supported by an ARC grant), is part of the ESA’s Mars Explorer team, where he is responsible for instrumentation on the ExoMars 2020 rover. But, as Marshall indicated, the team also hopes that NASA will consider their study:
“Hopefully someone at NASA reads the paper. Interestingly enough, the scientist who is lead primary investigator for the X-ray spectrometer for the space probe, they call it the PIXL, was his first graduate student from Macquarie University, before his KU times. I think I’ll email her the paper and say, ‘This might be of interest.’”
The next decade is expected to be a very auspicious time for exploration missions to Mars. Multiple rovers will be exploring the surface, hoping to find the elusive evidence of life. These missions will also help pave the way for NASA’s crewed mission to Mars by the 2030s, which will see astronauts landing on the surface of the Red Planet for the first time in history.
If, in fact, these missions find evidence of life, it will have a profound effect on all future mission to Mars. It will also have an immeasurable impact on humanity’s perception of itself, knowing at long last that billions of years ago, life did not emerge on Earth alone!
For years now, scientists have understood that Mars was once a warmer, wetter place. Between terrain features that indicate the presence of rivers and lakes to mineral deposits that appeared to have dissolved in water, there is no shortage of evidence attesting to this “watery” past. However, just how warm and wet the climate was billions of years ago (and since) has been a subject of much debate.
According to a new study from an international team of scientists from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), it seems that Mars may have been a lot wetter than previous estimates gave it credit for. With the help of Berkeley Laboratory, they conducted simulations on a mineral that has been found in Martian meteorites. From this, they determined that Mars may have had a lot more water on its surface than previously thought.
When it comes to studying the Solar System, meteorites are sometimes the only physical evidence available to researchers. This includes Mars, where meteorites recovered from Earth’s surface have helped to shed light on the planet’s geological past and what kinds of processes have shaped its crust. For geoscientists, they are the best means of determining what Mars looked like eons ago.
Unfortunately for geoscientists, these meteorites have underdone changes as a result of the cataclysmic force that expelled them from Mars. As Dr. Christopher Adcock, an Assistant Research Professor at with the Dept. of Geoscience at UNLV and the lead author of the study, told Universe Today via email:
“Martian meteorites are pieces of Mars, basically they are our only samples of Mars on Earth until there is a sample return mission. Many of the discoveries we have made about Mars came from studying martian meteorites and wouldn’t be possible without them. Unfortunately, these meteorites have all experienced shock from being ejected of the Martian surface during impacts.”
Of the over 100 Martian meteorites that have been retrieved here on Earth, and range in age from between 4 billion years to 165 million years. They are also believed to have come from only a few regions on Mars, and were likely ejecta created from impact events. And in the course of examining them, scientists have noticed the presence of a calcium phosphate mineral known as merrillite.
As a member of the whitlockite group that is commonly found in Lunar and Martian meteorities, this mineral is known for being anhydrous (i.e. containing no water). As such, researchers have drawn the conclusion that the presence of this minerals indicates that Mars had an arid environment when these rocks were ejected. This is certainly consistent with what Mars looks like today – cold, icy and dry as a bone.
This consisted of placing the synthetic whitlockite sample inside a projectile, then using a helium gas gun to accelerate it up to speeds of 700 meters per second (2520 km/h or 1500 mph) into a metal plate – thus subjecting it to intense heat and pressure. The sample was then examined using the Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source (ALS) and the Argonne National Laboratory’s Advanced Photon Source (APS) instruments.
“When we analyzed what came out of the capsule, we found a significant amount of the whitlockite had dehydrated to the mineral merrillite,” said Adcock. “Merrillite is found in many meteorites (including Martian). The means it is possible the rocks meteorites are made from originally started life with whitlockite in them in an environment with more water than previously thought. If true, it would indicate more water in the Martian past and the early Solar System.”
Not only does this find raise the “water budget” for Mars in the past, it also raises new questions about Mars’ habitability. In addition to being soluble in water, whitlockite also contains phosphorous – a crucial element for life here on Earth. Combined with recent evidence that shows that liquid water still exists on Mars’ surface – albeit intermittently – this raises new questions about whether or not Mars had life in the past (or even today).
But as Adcock explained, further experiments and evidence will be needed to determine if these results are indicative of a more watery past:
“As far as life goes, our results are very favorable for the possibility – but we need more data. Really we need a sample return mission or we need to go there in person – a human mission. Science is closing in on the answers to a number of big questions about our solar system, life elsewhere, and Mars. But it is difficult work when it all has to be done from far away.”
And sample returns are certainly on the horizon. NASA hopes to conduct the first step in this process with their Mars 2020 Rover, which will collect samples and leave them in a cache for future retrieval. The ESA’s ExoMars rover is expected to make the journey to Mars in the same year, and will also obtain samples as part of a sample-return mission to Earth.
These missions are scheduled to launch the summer of 2020, when the planets will be at their closest again. And with crewed missions to the surface planned for the following decade, we might see the first non-meteorite samples of Mars brought back to Earth for analysis.
Watch how Schiaparelli will land on Mars. Touchdown will occur at 10:48 a.m. EDT (14:48 GMT) Wednesday Oct. 19.
Cross your fingers for good weather on the Red Planet on October 19. That’s the day the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli lander pops open its parachute, fires nine, liquid-fueled thrusters and descends to the surface of Mars. Assuming fair weather, the lander should settle down safely on the wide-open plains of Meridiani Planum near the Martian equator northwest of NASA’s Opportunity rover. The region is rich in hematite, an iron-rich mineral associated with hot springs here on Earth.
The 8-foot-wide probe will be released three days earlier from the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and coast toward Mars before entering its atmosphere at 13,000 mph (21,000 km/hr). During the 6-minute-long descent, Schiaparelli will decelerate gradually using the atmosphere to brake its speed, a technique called aerobraking. Not only is Meridiani Planum flat, it’s low, which means the atmosphere is thick enough to allow Schiaparelli’s heat shield to reduce its speed sufficiently so the chute can be safely deployed. The final firing of its thrusters will ensure a soft and controlled landing.
The lander is one-half of the ExoMars 2016 mission, a joint venture between the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos. The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will fire its thrusters to place itself in orbit about the Red Planet the same day Schiparelli lands. Its job is to inventory the atmosphere in search of organic molecules, methane in particular. Plumes of methane, which may be biological or geological (or both) in origin, have recently been detected at several locations on Mars including Syrtis Major, the planet’s most prominent dark marking. The orbiter will hopefully pinpoint the source(s) as well as study seasonal changes in locations and concentrations.
Methane (CH4) has long been associated with life here on Earth. More than 90% of the colorless, odorless gas is produced by living organisms, primarily bacteria. Sunlight breaks methane down into other gases over a span of about 300 years. Because the gas relatively short-lived, seeing it on Mars implies an active, current source. There may be several:
Long-extinct bacteria that released methane that became trapped in ice or minerals in the upper crust. Changing temperature and pressure could stress the ice and release that ancient gas into today’s atmosphere.
Bacteria that are actively producing methane to this day.
Abiological sources. Iron can combine with oxygen in terrestrial hot springs and volcanoes to create methane. This gas can also become trapped in solid forms of water or ‘cages’ called clathrate hydrates that can preserve it for a long time. Olivine, a common mineral on Earth and Mars, can react with water under the right conditions to form another mineral called serpentine. When altered by heat, water and pressure, such in environments such as hydrothermal springs, serpentine can produce methane.
Will it turn out to be burping bacteria or mineral processes? Let’s hope TGO can point the way.
The Trace Gas Orbiter will also use the Martian atmosphere to slow its speed and trim its orbital loop into a 248-mile-high (400 km) circle suitable for science observations. But don’t expect much in the way of scientific results right away; aerobraking maneuvers will take about a year, so TGO’s job of teasing out atmospheric ingredients won’t begin until December 2017. The study runs for 5 years.
The orbiter will also examine Martian water vapor, nitrogen oxides and other organics with far greater accuracy than any previous probe as well as monitor seasonal changes in the atmosphere’s composition and temperature. And get this — its instruments can map subsurface hydrogen, a key ingredient in both water and methane, down to a depth of a meter (39.4 inches) with greater resolution compared to previous studies. Who knows? We may discover hidden ice deposits or methane sinks that could influence where future rovers will land. Additional missions to Mars are already on the docket, including ExoMars 2020. More about that in a minute.
While TGO’s mission will require years, the lander is expected to survive for only four Martian days (called ‘sols’) by using the excess energy capacity of its batteries. A set of scientific sensors will measure wind speed and direction, humidity, pressure and electric fields on the surface. A descent camera will take pictures of the landing site on the way down; we’ll should see those photos the very next day. Data and imagery from the lander will be transmitted to ESA’s Mars Express and a NASA Relay Orbiter, then relayed to Earth.
This animation shows the paths of the Trace Gas Orbiter and Schiaparelli lander on Oct. 19 when they arrive at Mars.
If you’re wondering why the lander’s mission is so brief, it’s because Schiaparelli is essentially a test vehicle. Its primary purpose is to test technologies for landing on Mars including the special materials used for protection against the heat of entry, a parachute system, a Doppler radar device for measuring altitude and liquid-fueled braking thrusters.
Martian dust storms can be cause for concern during any landing attempt. Since it’s now autumn in the planet’s northern hemisphere, a time when storms are common, there’s been some finger-nail biting of late. The good news is that storms of recent weeks have calmed and Mars has entered a welcome quiet spell.
To watch events unfold in real time, check out ESA’s live stream channel,Facebook pageand Twitter updates. The announcement of the separation of the lander from the orbiter will be made around 11 a.m. Eastern Time (15:00 GMT) Sunday October 16. Live coverage of the Trace Gas Orbiter arrival and Schiaparelli landing on Mars runs from 9-11:15 a.m. Eastern (13:00-15:15 GMT) on Wednesday October 19.Photos taken by Schiaparelli’s descent camera will be available starting at 4 a.m. Eastern (8:00 GMT) on October 20. More details here.We’ll also keep you updated on Universe Today.
Everything we learn during the current mission will be applied to planning and executing the next — ExoMars 2020, slated to launch in 2020. That venture will send a rover to the surface to search and chemically test for signs of life, present or past. It will collect samples with a drill at various depths and analyze the fines for bio-molecules. Getting down deep is important because the planet’s thin atmosphere lets through harsh UV light from the sun, sterilizing the surface.
Are you ready for adventure? See you on Mars (vicariously)!
Liftoff of the ExoMars 2018 rover mission currently under development jointly by Europe and Russia has just been postponed for two years to 2020, according to an announcement today, May 2, from the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian space agency Roscosmos.
The delay was forced by a variety of technical and funding issues that ate up the schedule margin to enable a successful outcome for what will be Europe’s first Mars rover. The goal is to search for signs of life.
“Taking into account the delays in European and Russian industrial activities and deliveries of the scientific payload, a launch in 2020 would be the best solution,” ESA explained in a statement today.
The ambitious ExoMars rover is the second of two joint Euro-Russian missions to explore the Red Planet. It is equipped with an ESA deep driller and a NASA instrument to search for preserved organic molecules.
The renamed ExoMars 2020 mission involves a European-led rover and a Russian-led surface platform and is also slated to blastoff on an Russian Proton rocket.
Roscosmos and ESA jointly decided to move the launch to the next available Mars launch window in July 2020. The costs associated with the delay are not known.
The delay means that the Euro-Russian rover mission will launch the same year as NASA’s 2020 rover.
The rover is being built by prime contractor Airbus Defense and Space in Stevenage, England.
The descent module and surface science package are provided by Roscosmos with some contributions by ESA.
Recognizing the potential for a delay, ESA and Roscosmos set up a tiger team in late 2015 to assess the best options.
“Russian and European experts made their best efforts to meet the 2018 launch schedule for the mission, and in late 2015, a dedicated ESA-Roscosmos Tiger Team, also including Russian and European industries, initiated an analysis of all possible solutions to recover schedule delays and accommodate schedule contingencies,” said ESA in the statement.
The tiger team reported their results to ESA Director General Johann-Dietrich Woerner and Roscosmos Director General Igor Komarov.
Woerner and Komarov then “jointly decided to move the launch to the next available Mars launch window in July 2020, and tasked their project teams to develop, in cooperation with the industrial contactors, a new baseline schedule aiming towards a 2020 launch. Additional measures will also be taken to maintain close control over the activities on both sides up to launch.”
The ExoMars 2016 interplanetary mission is comprised of the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander. The spacecraft are due to arrive at Mars in October 2016.
The goal of TGO is to search for possible signatures of life in the form of trace amounts of atmospheric methane on the Red Planet.
The main purpose of Schiaparelli is to demonstrate key entry, descent, and landing technologies for the follow on 2nd ExoMars mission that will land the first European rover on the Red Planet.
The now planned 2020 ExoMars mission will deliver an advanced rover to the Red Planet’s surface. It is equipped with the first ever deep driller that can collect samples to depths of 2 meters (seven feet) where the environment is shielded from the harsh conditions on the surface – namely the constant bombardment of cosmic radiation and the presence of strong oxidants like perchlorates that can destroy organic molecules.
ExoMars was originally a joint NASA/ESA project.
But thanks to hefty cuts to NASA’s budget by Washington DC politicians, NASA was forced to terminate the agencies involvement after several years of extremely detailed work and withdraw from participation as a full partner in the exciting ExoMars missions.
NASA is still providing the critical MOMA science instrument that will search for organic molecules.
Thereafter Russia agreed to take NASA’s place and provide the much needed funding and rockets for the pair of launches in March 2016 and May 2018.
TGO will also help search for safe landing sites for the ExoMars 2020 lander and serve as the all important data communication relay station sending signals and science from the rover and surface science platform back to Earth.
ExoMars 2016 is Europe’s most advanced mission to Mars and joins Europe’s still operating Mars Express Orbiter (MEX), which arrived back in 2004, as well as a fleet of NASA and Indian probes.
The Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander arrive at Mars on October 19, 2016.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.