Mars Was Once Wet Like Earth? Not So Fast

Thursday, 07 December 2017 - 11:00AM
Thursday, 07 December 2017 - 11:00AM
Mars Was Once Wet Like Earth? Not So Fast
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Image credit: NASA
The planet Mars has always held a certain amount of fascination among the scientific community.

It's long been believed by experts that the Red Planet, currently a dim, cold, dusty ball of rock, was once far more similar to Earth, with warm oceans and a steamy atmosphere that would have provided the perfect environment for the development of life.

This belief is backed up by some evidence in the way that the crust of earth on Mars' surface has developed, and it's a key part of our continued, increasingly desperate hope that there might be alien life somewhere within our reach in the solar system.

Unfortunately, a new study has cast aspersions on this basic element of our currently understood history of Martian development—according to a new paper from Brown University, we might be overly hopeful in thinking that Mars was ever warm and wet enough to provide a fertile environment for simple life forms.

Mars is covered in deep ravines that contain clay deposits which look an awful lot like the result of deep lakes and rivers. The present theory surrounding this clay is that it formed during a relatively recent period in the planet's history (some four billion years ago), at which point, Mars must have been hot and wet enough to sustain large bodies of water without them freezing.

The new study, though, argues that these canyons and their clay formed at around the time that the planet was initially berthed, meaning that they've stayed unchanged ever since. If this is the case, then it certainly explains where all of Mars' water went—there never was any to begin with.

According to lead scientist Kevin Cannon:

Opening quote
"This is a very contentious and ongoing debate. I'd say, right now, it's sort of leaning more toward the idea that Mars was mostly cold and dry during that time, and that you just had these 100- or 1,000-year periods where temperatures got a little bit warmer—enough to have melting and runoff, but maybe not enough to significantly alter the crust and form a bunch of clays and things like that."
Closing quote

While this theory isn't going to be instantly accepted by the scientific community as a whole, it is a real kick in the pants to anyone who's holding out hope for signs of life somewhere on Mars. It also backs up research from NASA that similarly suggests that we've misinterpreted evidence that previously was thought to prove that Mars had oceans.

We can't be certain when the Martian canyons formed, but the fact that there's even a debate to be had on this subject calls into question the idea that Mars was ever fertile ground for the development of home-grown bacteria.

Nevertheless, we do know that Mars definitely can sustain microscopic life (even if humans would have a hard time on the planet's surface without some environmental protection such as a batmobile), so the lack of oceans doesn't entirely rule out the possibility that homegrown life might exist somewhere on the distant planet.

For now, though, as this debate rages endlessly, it might be worth assuming that we won't ever find definitive proof of Martians that science fiction has taught us to expect.

Alas, there are no little green men, no giant speedy dogs, no sexy princesses, and certainly, no biker mice, anywhere on Mars.
Mars Was Once Wet Like Earth? Not So Fast