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Martian "crumbs" in Antarctica

30.06.2017 Space, Recommended
Digital Illustration of Planet Mars

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For scientists, Martian rocks are an invaluable source of information about the Red Planet. Unfortunately, they still remain almost inaccessible. Bringing them from Mars would be too expensive. Sometimes, however, they happen to fall on Earth. The American National Science Foundation searches for them in Antarctica every year.

Billions of years ago Mars looked very much like Earth. There were rivers, lakes, possibly a huge ocean covering much of the Martian northern hemisphere. Even 3.8 billion years ago, the atmosphere of the planet was quite similar to the Earth's atmosphere. However, over time - along with water - it escaped into space.


"In the images from Mars you can see, for example, terrain forms that looks just like the Earth's landscape: valleys or river deltas. In some places you can see the coastline of the ocean, which used to be in the northern hemisphere of Mars" - Dr. Anna Łosiak from the Institute of Geological Sciences PAS explained an interview with PAP.


Scientists reproduce this astounding image of the Red Planet based on very detailed satellite images of Mars surface and numerous measurements provided by Mars rovers such as Curiosity, or probes such as the MAVEN probe.


While working on one of her Mars surface research projects, planetary geologist Dr. Anna Łosiak had to rely on sources other than Martian rocks. The reason is quite prosaic. No samples have ever been brought from the Red Planet, so researchers are limited to analysing the images of Mars and other data. "If we wanted to send a mission to Mars to bring such samples, we would have to launch an enormous amount of equipment. It is possible, but it would be very expensive" - the researcher said.


But sometimes scientists are able to identify small bits of rock from Mars right here on Earth. These are rare cases, because most of the Martian material that is knocked out into space, for example as a result of the impact of a large asteroid on the Red Planet, burns in the Sun. Sometimes, however, such Martian "crumbs" land on Earth. Every year, the American National Science Foundation in the ANSMET ANSMET (Antarctic Search for Meteorites) program sends a group of researchers to search for these crumbs on Antarctic ice cap. That is where they remain unchanged for the longest time. Collected samples - after being transported to the US - are stored and analysed by NASA and the world's largest museum complex of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.



Sometimes in Antarctica, precisely because of the conditions prevailing there, researchers find other interesting space objects. While they don't come directly from Mars, they can also tell a lot about the history of the Red Planet. Antarctica is the place of discovery of pieces of the asteroid Vesta, orbiting between Mars and Jupiter.


Dr. Łosiak investigated these space objects. Asteroids of this type have a basalt composition - very similar to the chemical composition of rocks on Mars. By studying basalt rocks, international team of researchers led by Dr. Łosiak concluded that there may be liquid water on the surface of the northern Mars Ice Cap - at least from time to time.


Researchers from the Institute of Geological Sciences PAS, the University of Warsaw and Michigan State University have confirmed the earlier results of NASA. The US Space Agency announced in 2015 that, by analysing data collected by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), it had found evidence of hydrated salts on the surface of Mars. This means that water in liquid form may periodically exist on the northern ice cap of Mars.


"In large part of Mars, liquid water can not exist at all. Even if we were to bring it there, it would evaporate in a few moments as a result of the very low atmospheric pressure of Mars" - explained Dr. Łosiak. The northern ice cap of Mars, however, can break the trend and allow water in liquid form to exist. It is also one of the better places where Martian microorganisms could live - now or in the past. Obviously there is no evidence of this yet.


Why is this place so special? Both poles of Mars - described Dr. Łosiak - have ice caps very similar to those that occur in Antarctica. It is mostly plain water ice, but much more polluted with dust than ice on Earth. There are a lot of dust on our planet, but most of it ends up in the oceans. On Mars - because there are no oceans - both the atmosphere and the ice are much more dusty. If the sun shines on the ice cap and the dark grains of dust, it may be warm enough to melt the ice around them. This way, thawed substances on the grains can react with each other, forming new minerals and, for example, large gypsum deposits.


"Our main conclusion is that on the warmest summer days on the northern ice cap of Mars, there may be conditions in which small amounts of water in the liquid state exist. This may affect the formation of new minerals, and, secondly, the potential life of the organisms, although for now there is no evidence for the existence of the latter" - reminded Dr. Łosiak.


PAP - Science and Scholarship in Poland, Ewelina Krajczyńska


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