Melt Water On The Red Planet Could Support Life
November 16, 2012

Melt Water On The Red Planet Could Support Life

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

Though Mars is 140 million miles away, it shares some similarities with Earth. Some of its landforms, for existence, closely resemble regions found here on Earth. It is by researching these similar landforms and landscapes that researchers are able to gather some assumptions about how these martian landscapes were formed. If the two areas look the same, perhaps they were created in the same way as well.

Dr. Andreas Johnsson from the University of Gothenburg´s Department of Earth Sciences believes this is true, and has begun to compare one such arctic landscape with the northern and southern hemispheres of Mars. His conclusion? Water near the surface of Mars may have helped shaped its landscape. What´s more, this near surface water could potentially sustain life on the Martian surface.

Dr. Johnsson claims Mars has recently gone through a time of geological change as the cycle of freezing and melting water carves and shapes the landscape. In order to better understand how these changes have affected Mars, and in order to further predict how these changes could affect the surface in the future, Dr. Johnsson and colleagues have looked to the Arctic region of Svalbard.

This team has analyzed and compared satellite images from Mars and Svalbard and have found some striking similarities. Though the arctic Svalbard is considerably warmer than Mars, the two areas look very much alike. One of the main differences, says Dr. Johnsson, is the presence of frozen water beneath the surface and permafrost.

“In my thesis work, I have compared aerial images from Svalbard with the same resolution as satellite images from Mars, and combined with field-work we increase the ground resolution even further,” Dr. Johnsson said in a statement.

The gullies in Svalbard are known to have been created by a combination of melting snow and erosion. Dr. Johnsson and team noticed Mars had very similar gullies and have therefore deduced these Martian gullies were formed in the same way. The team has also supplemented their aerial images with some on-the-ground field work in order to accurately understand how the landscape of Svalbard was formed.

“The ability to get a first-hand experience with landforms that have been studied using aerial images is a unique feeling,” said Dr. Johnsson.

“One important insight we have gained is that, despite the high image resolution for both Svalbard and Mars, the camera can´t capture everything. What appears to be fine-grained sediment on an aerial image of Svalbard can actually turn out to be a very rocky area which has implications for certain types of landforms. It´s important to bear this in mind when studying images of Mars.”

Mars also has a cyclical climate, just like Earth. This, suggests Dr. Johnsson, means the freezing and melting of Martian water could continue over time, changing the landscape.

While understanding that both Mars and Earth have similar characteristics, the big discovery here is the possibility of water on Mars. The existence of liquid water, even just a small amount, means life could be very possible on Mars.

“Research on Earth has shown that organisms can survive in extreme cold environments with limited access to liquid water,” continues Dr. Johnsson. “Studying various areas on Mars therefore enables us to investigate whether there could be environments with conditions capable of supporting life.”