NASA News: NASA Study Of Clay Minerals Suggests Watery Martian Underground

WASHINGTON -- A new NASA study suggests if life ever existed on Mars,
the longest lasting habitats were most likely below the Red Planet's surface.

A new interpretation of years of mineral-mapping data, from more than
350 sites on Mars examined by European and NASA orbiters, suggests
Martian environments with abundant liquid water on the surface
existed only during short episodes. These episodes occurred toward
the end of hundreds of millions of years during which warm water
interacted with subsurface rocks. This has implications about whether
life existed on Mars and how its atmosphere has changed.

"The types of clay minerals that formed in the shallow subsurface are
all over Mars," said John Mustard, professor at Brown University in
Providence, R.I. Mustard is a co-author of the study in the journal
Nature. "The types that formed on the surface are found at very
limited locations and are quite rare."

Discovery of clay minerals on Mars in 2005 indicated the planet once
hosted warm, wet conditions. If those conditions existed on the
surface for a long era, the planet would have needed a much thicker
atmosphere than it has now to keep the water from evaporating or
freezing. Researchers have sought evidence of processes that could
cause a thick atmosphere to be lost over time.

This new study supports an alternative hypothesis that persistent warm
water was confined to the subsurface and many erosional features were
carved during brief periods when liquid water was stable at the surface.

"If surface habitats were short-term, that doesn't mean we should be
glum about prospects for life on Mars, but it says something about
what type of environment we might want to look in," said the report's
lead author, Bethany Ehlmann, assistant professor at the California
Institute of Technology and scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion
Laboratory in Pasadena. "The most stable Mars habitats over long
durations appear to have been in the subsurface. On Earth,
underground geothermal environments have active ecosystems."

The discovery of clay minerals by the OMEGA spectrometer on the
European Space Agency's Mars Express orbiter added to earlier
evidence of liquid Martian water. Clays form from the interaction of
water with rock. Different types of clay minerals result from
different types of wet conditions.

During the past five years, researchers used OMEGA and NASA's Compact
Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer, or CRISM, instrument on the Mars
Reconnaissance Orbiter to identify clay minerals at thousands of
locations on Mars. Clay minerals that form where the ratio of water
interacting with rock is small generally retain the same chemical
elements as the original volcanic rocks later altered by the water.

The study interprets this to be the case for most terrains on Mars
with iron and magnesium clays. In contrast, surface environments with
higher ratios of water to rock can alter rocks further. Soluble
elements are carried off by water, and different aluminum-rich clays form.

Another clue is detection of a mineral called prehnite. It forms at
temperatures above about 400 degrees Fahrenheit (about 200 degrees
Celsius). These temperatures are typical of underground hydrothermal
environments rather than surface waters.

"Our interpretation is a shift from thinking that the warm, wet
environment was mostly at the surface to thinking it was mostly in
the subsurface, with limited exceptions," said Scott Murchie of Johns
Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., a
co-author of the report and principal investigator for CRISM.

One of the exceptions may be Gale Crater, the site targeted by NASA's
Mars Science Laboratory mission. Launching this year, the Curiosity
rover will land and investigate layers that contain clay and sulfate minerals.

NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission, or MAVEN, in
development for a 2013 launch, may provide evidence for or against
this new interpretation of the Red Planet's environmental history.
The report predicts MAVEN findings consistent with the atmosphere not
having been thick enough to provide warm, wet surface conditions for
a prolonged period.

JPL manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter for NASA's Science Mission
Directorate in Washington. APL provided and operates CRISM.

For more information about the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, visit:



NASA Announces New Advisory Council Chairman

WASHINGTON -- NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has named Cornell
University Astronomy Professor Steven W. Squyres, as chairman of the
NASA Advisory Council (NAC), an assembly of experts from various
fields that offer guidance and policy advice to the administrator of
America's space agency.

"I am extremely excited that Steve has accepted the NAC chairmanship,"
Bolden said. "His experience as a planetary science researcher with
many NASA robotic missions will be of great value to the council. The
knowledge and experience of the council's members, such as Steve's,
is a vital component of the group. They will be of tremendous value
as we go forward, planning to go beyond low-Earth orbit."

Dr. Squyres succeeds Dr. Kenneth Ford, the founder and director of the
Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, who has served as
council chairman since October 2008. Squyres previously served on the
council during the 1990's, and he also served as chairman of the
former NASA Space Science Advisory Committee.

In October 2011, Squyres participated as an aquanaut in a unique 5-day
undersea expedition in the Florida Keys that simulated a future human
mission to an asteroid, taking the first steps toward learning how to
conduct asteroid exploration by humans. He was a member of the 15th
NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) team of six
researchers that lived and worked underwater in Aquarius, a school
bus-sized laboratory sitting on the seabed near Key Largo, Fla., at a
depth of 60 feet. NASA's goal is to send a human mission to an
asteroid by 2025. The NEEMO expedition was originally planned for
13-day duration, but ended earlier than planned due to Hurricane Rina.

Squyres' scientific research focuses on the robotic exploration of
planetary surfaces, the history of water on Mars, geophysics and
tectonics of icy satellites, tectonics of Venus, and planetary
gamma-ray and X-ray spectroscopy. His best known research includes
the study of the history and distribution of water on Mars and of the
possible existence and habitability of a liquid water ocean on Europa.

Squyres has participated in a number of NASA planetary missions
including Voyager, Magellan, and the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous.
He currently is the scientific principal investigator for the Mars
Exploration Rover mission, which includes the Spirit and Opportunity
rovers. He also is a co-investigator on the Mars Express mission and
the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Squyres is a member of the Mars
Odyssey mission and the Cassini mission to Saturn.

In 1981, Squyres earned a Ph.D. in planetary science from Cornell University.

For more information about the NASA Advisory Council, visit:


◄ Share this news!

Bookmark and Share


The Manhattan Reporter

Recently Added

Recently Commented