The planet Mars is arguably the most extensively studied planetary body in the entire Solar System, which began with telescopic observations by Galileo Galilei in 1609, with such telescopic observations later being taken to the extreme by Percival Lowell in the late 19th century when he reported seeing what he believed were artificial canals made by an advanced intelligent race of Martians. But it wasn’t until the first close up image of Mars taken by NASA’s Mariner 4 in 1965 that we saw the Red Planet for what it really was: a cold and dead world with no water and no signs of life, whatsoever.Continue reading “Our Best Instruments Couldn’t Find Life on Mars”
Mars Once had Enough Water for a Planet-Wide Ocean 300 Meters Deep
Today, Mars is colloquially known as the “Red Planet” on a count of how its dry, dusty landscape is rich in iron oxide (aka. “rust”). In addition, the atmosphere is extremely thin and cold, and no water can exist on the surface in any form other than ice. But as the Martian landscape and other lines of evidence attest, Mars was once a very different place, with a warmer, denser atmosphere and flowing water on its surface. For years, scientists have attempted to determine how long natural bodies existed on Mars and whether or not they were intermittent or persistent.
Another important question is how much water Mars once had and whether or not this was enough to support life. According to a new study by an international team of planetary scientists, Mars may have had enough water 4.5 billion years ago to cover it in a global ocean up to 300 meters (almost 1,000 feet) deep. Along with organic molecules and other elements distributed throughout the Solar System by asteroids and comets at this time, they argue, these conditions indicate that Mars may have been the first planet in the Solar System to support life.Continue reading “Mars Once had Enough Water for a Planet-Wide Ocean 300 Meters Deep”
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Will Mars finally answer, ‘Are we alone?’
We recently examined how and why the planet Venus could answer the longstanding question: Are we alone? Despite its harsh environment on the surface, its atmosphere could be hospitable for life as we know it. Here, we will examine the planet Mars, aka the Red Planet and the fourth planet in our solar system, which has been marveling sky watchers from ancient times to the present day.Continue reading “Will Mars finally answer, ‘Are we alone?’”
Mars did Have Moving Glaciers, but They Behaved Differently in the Planet's Lower Gravity
On Earth, shifts in our climate have caused glaciers to advance and recede throughout our geological history (known as glacial and inter-glacial periods). The movement of these glaciers has carved features on the surface, including U-shaped valleys, hanging valleys, and fjords. These features are missing on Mars, leading scientists to conclude that any glaciers on its surface in the distant past were stationary. However, new research by a team of U.S. and French planetary scientists suggests that Martian glaciers did move more slowly than those on Earth.Continue reading “Mars did Have Moving Glaciers, but They Behaved Differently in the Planet's Lower Gravity”
Mars Rovers Will Need to Dig Deeper If They Want to Find Evidence of Life
The search for life—even ancient life—on Mars is trickier than we thought. In a recent study published in the journal Astrobiology, researchers have determined that NASA’s Mars Perseverance (Percy) Rover will have to dig two meters (6.6 feet) beneath the Martian surface in order to find traces of ancient life. This is because the surface of Mars is constantly bombarded with extreme levels of solar radiation that scientists hypothesize would quickly degrade small molecules such as amino acids. The reason for this extreme level of radiation is due to the absence of a magnetic field, which scientists believe was stripped away billions of years ago when the planet’s liquid outer core ceased to produce the dynamo that created the field.Continue reading “Mars Rovers Will Need to Dig Deeper If They Want to Find Evidence of Life”
Perseverance Begins the Next Phase of its Mission, Studying an Ancient River Bed on Mars
On February 18, 2021, NASA’s Perseverance (Percy) Rover successfully landed in the dried-up lakebed known as Jezero Crater on Mars, beaming back images and video of its descent and landing to millions of space fans living on the planet that built and launched this incredible robotic explorer. With this landing came enormous excitement for a new era of robotic exploration of the Red Planet as we slowly continue to unlock the secrets of Mars and its ancient past, to include (hopefully) finding evidence of past life.Continue reading “Perseverance Begins the Next Phase of its Mission, Studying an Ancient River Bed on Mars”
NASA and HeroX are Crowdsourcing the Search for Life on Mars
For almost sixty years, robotic missions have been exploring the surface of Mars in search of potential evidence of life. More robotic missions will join in this search in the next fifteen years, the first sample return from Mars (courtesy of the Perseverance rover) will arrive here at Earth, and crewed missions will be sent there. Like their predecessors, these missions will rely on mass spectrometry to analyze samples of the Martian sands to look for potential signs of past life.
Given how much data we can expect from these missions, NASA is looking for new methods to analyze geological samples. To this end, NASA has partnered with the global crowdsourcing platform HeroX and the data-science company DrivenData to launch the Mars Spectrometry: Detect Evidence for Past Life challenge. With a prize purse of $30,000, this Challenge seeks innovative methods that rely on machine learning to automatically analyze Martian geological samples for potential signs of past life.Continue reading “NASA and HeroX are Crowdsourcing the Search for Life on Mars”
Curiosity Sees a Strong Carbon Signature in a Bed of Rocks
Carbon is critical to life, as far as we know. So anytime we detect a strong carbon signature somewhere like Mars, it could indicate biological activity.
Does a strong carbon signal in Martian rocks indicate biological processes of some type?Continue reading “Curiosity Sees a Strong Carbon Signature in a Bed of Rocks”
Remember When Life was Found in a Martian Meteorite? Turns out, it was Just Geology
The Alan Hills meteorite is a part of history to Mars aficionados. It came from Mars and meteorite hunters discovered in Antarctica in 1984. Scientists think it’s one of the oldest chunks of rock to come from Mars and make it to Earth.
The meteorite made headlines in 1996 when a team of researchers said they found evidence of life in it.
Did they?Continue reading “Remember When Life was Found in a Martian Meteorite? Turns out, it was Just Geology”
Is That a Fossil on Mars? Non-Biological Deposits can Mimic Organic Structures
There’s nothing easy about searching for evidence of life on Mars. Not only do we somehow have to land a rover there, which is extraordinarily difficult. But the rover needs the right instruments, and it has to search in the right location. Right now, the Perseverance lander has checked those boxes as it pursues its mission in Jezero Crater.
But there’s another problem: there are structures that look like fossils but aren’t. Many natural chemical processes produce structures that mimic biological ones. How can we tell them apart? How can we prepare for these false positives?Continue reading “Is That a Fossil on Mars? Non-Biological Deposits can Mimic Organic Structures”