July 21, 2005
Mars May Have Been in the Deep Freeze for the Past Four Billion Years
PASADENA, Calif. -- The current mean temperature on the equator of Mars is a blustery 69 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Scientists have long thought that the Red Planet was once temperate enough for water to have existed on the surface, and for life to possibly have evolved. But a new study by Caltech and MIT scientists gives this idea the cold shoulder.
In the July 22 issue of the journal Science, Caltech graduate student David Shuster and MIT assistant professor Benjamin Weiss (formerly a Caltech student) report that their studies of Martian meteorites demonstrate that at least several rocks originally located near the surface of Mars have been freezing cold for four billion years. Their work is a novel approach to extracting information on the past climate of Mars through the study of Martian meteorites.
In fact, the evidence shows that during the last four billion years, Mars has likely never been sufficiently warm for liquid water to have flowed on the surface for extended periods of time. This implies that Mars has probably never had a hospitable environment for life to have evolved, unless life could have gotten started during the first half-billion years of its existence, when the planet was probably warmer.
The work involves two of the seven known "nakhlite" meteorites (named after El Nakhla, Egypt, where the first such meteorite was discovered), and the celebrated ALH84001 meteorite that some scientists believe shows evidence of microbial activity on Mars. Using geochemical techniques, Shuster and Weiss reconstructed a "thermal history" for each of the meteorites to estimate the maximum long-term average temperatures to which they were subjected.
"We looked at meteorites in two ways," says Weiss. "First, we evaluated what the meteorites could have experienced during ejection from Mars, 11 to 15 million years ago, in order to set an upper limit on the temperatures in a worst-case scenario for shock-heating."
Their conclusions were that ALH84001 could never have been heated to a temperature higher than 650 degrees Fahrenheit for even a brief period of time during the last 15 million years. The nakhlites, which show very little evidence of shock-damage, were unlikely to have been above the boiling point of water during ejection 11 million years ago.
Although these are still rather high temperatures, the other part of the research addressed the long-term thermal history of the rocks while they resided on Mars. They did this by estimating the total amount of argon still remaining in the samples, using data previously published by two teams at the University of Arizona and the NASA Johnson Space Center.
The gas argon is present in the meteorites as well as in many rocks on Earth as a natural consequence of the radioactive decay of potassium. As a noble gas, argon is not very chemically reactive, and because the decay rate is precisely known, geologists for years have measured argon as a means of dating rocks.
However, argon is also known to "leak" out of rocks at a temperature-dependent rate. This means that if the argon remaining in the rocks is measured, an inference can be made about the maximum heat to which the rock has been subjected since the argon was first made. The cooler the rock has been, the more argon will have been retained.
Shuster and Weiss's analysis found that only a tiny fraction of the argon that was originally produced in the meteorite samples has been lost through the eons. "The small amount of argon loss that has apparently taken place in these meteorites is remarkable. Any way we look at it, these rocks have been cold for a very long time," says Shuster. Their calculations suggest that the Martian surface has been in deep-freeze for most of the last four billion years.
"The temperature histories of these two planets are truly different. On Earth, you couldn't find a single rock that has been below even room temperature for that long," says Shuster. The ALH84001 meteorite, in fact, couldn't have been above freezing for more than a million years during the last 3.5 billion years of history.
"Our research doesn't mean that there weren't pockets of isolated water in geothermal springs for long periods of time, but suggests instead that there haven't been large areas of free-standing water for four billion years.
"Our results seem to imply that surface features indicating the presence and flow of liquid water formed over relatively short time periods," says Shuster.
On a positive note for astrobiology, however, Weiss says that the new study does nothing to disprove the theory of "panspermia," which holds that life can jump from one planet to another by meteorites. Weiss and his supervising professor at Caltech, Joe Kirschvink (the Van Wingen Professor of Geobiology), several years ago showed that microbes could indeed have traveled from Mars to Earth in the hairline fractures of ALH84001 without having been destroyed by heat. In particular, the fact that the nakhlites have never been heated above about 200 degrees Fahrenheit means that they were not heat-sterilized during ejection from Mars and transfer to Earth.
The title of the new paper is "Martian Surface Paleotemperatures from Thermochronology of Meteorites."
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