Surface of Mars an unlikely place for life after 600-million-year drought
28 February 2012
Mars may have been arid for approximately 600 million years, making it too hostile for life to survive on the planet’s surface, according to researchers who have been carrying out the painstaking task of analysing individual particles of Martian soil, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. Lead author on the study Dr Tom Pike (Electrical Engineering), discussed the team’s analysis at a European Space Agency (ESA) meeting on 7 February.
The researchers have spent three years analysing data on Martian soil that was collected during the 2008 NASA Phoenix mission to Mars. Phoenix touched down in the northern arctic region of the planet to search for signs that it was habitable and to analyse ice and soil on the surface.
Dr Pike explains: “We found that even though there is an abundance of ice, Mars has been experiencing a super-drought that may well have lasted hundreds of millions of years. We think the Mars we know today contrasts sharply with its earlier history, which had warmer and wetter periods and which may have been more suited to life. Future NASA and ESA missions that are planned for Mars will have to dig deeper to search for evidence of life, which may still be taking refuge underground.”
The team also estimated that the soil that they analysed had been exposed to liquid water for, at most, 5,000 years since its formation billions of years ago and this sample may be indicative of soil across the whole planet. They also found that Martian and Moon soil is being formed under the same extremely dry conditions.
— Colin Smith, Communications and Development