What a Martian Meteorite Could Tell Us About Water on MarsFirst Published: March 16, 2017 Last updated: November 22nd, 2017 Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes
For years, we have looked at Mars, the Red Planet, and believed it was essentially a dry planet. However, as ever, new evidence has emerged to blow these old theories and ideas out of the water. New research by the Department of Energy has found that through examination of simulated Martian meteorites the famous planet might actually have been far wetter than we once had claimed.
This was found in a unique new study found in Nature Communications, a popular journal. The research team behind these new findings soon found that minerals located in Martian meteorites may have once contained a hydrogen material. If this is true, it would point to the fact that – at one stage, anyway – Mars was a planet that was dense with water.
For many years, though, these same meteorites were held up as prime examples of the dryness of Mars. This new research team, though, from the University of Las Vegas, has managed to synthesize a version of this substance otherwise known as whitlockite.
So, after undergoing some shock compression experiments, some very impressive discoveries were made on the whitlockite samples. These simulations helped to replicate the conditions that we would see when Mars has ejected meteorites in the past so that a deep and full examination could take place.
Using a powerful microscopic X-ray, Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source, as well as the Advanced Photon Source at the Argonne National Laboratory, this discovery occurred. The X-rays that took place were used to show that, under such circumstances, whitlockite can become dehydrated quickly.
This means that when this happens, it forms merrillite instead. This is a mineral that is a regular find on meteorites from Mars, but a mineral that does not occur on our own planet.
The Latest Discovery
However, these kind of discoveries about how wrong we have been about Mars are not new – or even uncommon. Recently, the Mars Express probe – a product of the European Space Agency – continued its close to 15-year exploration of the Red Planet. It’s always finding new and exciting involvements that we have missed before on the planet. One of the latest finds, though, helps to back up the idea of a water-ridden Mars quite dramatically.
This new find came from within the Kasei Valles region of the planet. There, the probe came across a massive range of expansive, beautiful canyons. Within these canyons, though, was an incredible water outflow network – further evidence of a potential mega-flood that took place here in the far distant past.
This is supposed to have taken place close to 3.5 billion years ago when ground water was released from the Echus Chasma. This area is loaded with clay deposits, which further indicate the presence of excessive water volumes at one stage or another. The Kasei Valles is also covered in water erosion signs, further proof that at least once before there were masses of water found on the supposedly dry planet.
While for years it’s been understood that Mars was a wetter and even warmer place than it is today, we’re beginning to more mounting evidence that it was far wetter than once thought. This has been a subject of immense debate over the years, but these latest findings have been a landmark case for the research into Mars.
VIDEO: Animation of Site of Seasonal Flows in Hale Crater, Mars
Why This Matters
So, the reason why this is even important in the first place is quite simple – we can now (hopefully) determine where the water came from. Was it always on Mars itself? Or is it from the meteorites? More research is going to be needed, of course, but this is a positive sign in a long-term research plan.
Even if the merrillite had been whitlockite in the past, it still shows that the water volumes on Mars far outstrip what previous estimates believed. However, there is one angle we have not touched on yet – what this means for life.
Basically, whitlockite when put in water dissolves. When it begins to dissolve, the large volumes of phosphorus found inside it can escape into the water. Phosphorus is a major part of what is needed for the kind of life that we understand to be created in the first place. If it’s also essential for life in the rules of other planets, as we believe, then this has some pretty major implications for the ideas of life on Mars.
While the environment of Mars today would not be suitable for human life, it could be suitable for some kind of life. With this finding, though, we now have a better idea of, at least at one stage, Mars was potentially suitable for us to live on.
By using an X-Ray beam to study the structure of the whitlockite once it was being shocked, they discovered what we’ve just gone through. This allowed for easier differentiation between merrillite and whitlockite, making it easier to determine if what was being discovered was the case or not.
In 2013, we were shocked to find out that dark streaks on Martian slopes pointed to water flow on the planet. This was, at the time, a landmark discovery. This played a major role in understanding more about the potential for water on Mars and opened up a whole new discussion about the make-up of the planet.
Then, at the end of last year, we found a frozen body of water-ice on one side of Mars alone that made up for more water in the whole of Lake Superior. With Rover expeditions now finding more and more information that points to the idea of water being on Mars being more than just a theory, we are getting closer to knowing more about the true origins of Mars.
The main challenge, now, is to definitely provide that the merrillite that was found can now be proven to have once been whitlockite in the past. If they can do that, this would be more or less conclusive proof of water traces on the Red Planet.
However, we are not yet where we need to be. The conclusive and ‘winning’ proof would be a genuine meteorite taken from Mars itself, brought back to Earth, and viewed here for closer studies. Sadly, the chances of getting one back fully intact is something we’ll need to work a fair amount on before we can get to that stage.
Still, anyone who is interested in the true origins of Mars should be very excited. The last year or so has brought a lot of hidden information and potential theories about Mars – who knows what the next year will hold?