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Martian Climate Was Life-Friendly More Recently Than Thought

Published by Rob Goldsmith on Wed Jul 1, 2009 4:58 pm
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Warm weather near the Martian equator may have melted the ice in ice-rich soils as recently as 2 million years ago, according to a paper published yesterday in “Earth and Planetary Science Letters.” This indicates that the Red Planet was warmer and more life-friendly much later in its history than previous studies show.

Matthew Balme, a research scientist with the Tucson-based Planetary Science Institute and a research fellow at the United Kingdom’s Open University, discovered signs of melting permafrost in images from NASA’s HiRISE (High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment) camera, which is flying aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

The images show that landforms once thought to be shaped by volcanism were actually modified by the expansion and contraction of ice due to freeze/thaw cycles, Balme said.

Balme studied an outflow channel that was active as recently as 2 to 8 million years ago. The channel contains polygonal patterns, branched channels, blocky debris and mound/cone formations, all of which are similar to formations found where permafrost melts on Earth.

“These observations demonstrate that ice melted near the Martian equator within the past few million years and then refroze,” Balme said. “This probably happened over many freeze/thaw cycles.”

Since liquid water is essential to life as we know it, this equatorial channel would be an ideal place to hunt for traces of past or present Martian life, Balme added.

Balme’s research was funded by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council and by NASA’s Mars Data Analysis Program. In addition to his post with PSI, Balme is an Aurora Fellow at the UK’s Open University.

HiRISE image shows evidence of flowing water on Mars

HiRISE image shows evidence of flowing water on Mars

This HiRISE image shows evidence of flowing water on Mars, which occurred in recent geologic time. A cusp-shaped cliff (with narrow, spur-like headlands) divides higher terrain (bottom left) from lower terrain (upper right). A channel network leads away from a debris field underneath the cliff and terminates in hummocky debris fans. Both the upper and lower terrains are marked by a polygonal pattern of faint grooves and mounds. This terrain pattern – when found with cusp-shaped cliffs, debris fields, and channels – indicates thawing of an ice-rich permafrost landscape. Virtually identical features are seen on Earth in permafrost areas of Canada and Siberia. These features are Part of HiIRSE image PSP_009280_1905. (Image credit: NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory/The University of Arizona.)

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