Identified potential "places of life" on Mars

Mars Express provides information on promising regions

Potential "places of life" on Mars © European Space Agency
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New data from the Mars Express mission has provided scientists with new insights into the mineral composition of Mars. It also provides insight into where and when there might be life on the Red Planet, and which areas are worth landing sites for future sample collection missions.

Mars Express, the first European mission to Mars, has already provided many new insights into our neighboring planets. In six articles, which have now appeared online in the renowned science journal Science, an international team of scientists, including John Mustard, Professor of Geo- and Planetary Sciences at the American Brown University, reveals new data on the composition of the dry, cold surface of Mars and the hidden in the rock hints to the past of the Red Planet.

Mustard, who co-authored three of the articles, reports that the research reveals multiple areas of the Martian surface that contain water or at least provided a liveable environment millions of years ago. "If you want to answer the big question about life on Mars, you have to go to the right places and take samples, " explains the researcher. "The new results tell us where some of these jobs might be."

Using a special measuring instrument, the OMEGA spectrometer aboard the Mars Express probe, scientists used both visible and infrared light to map the surface composition of the planet. The researchers found a diverse and complex mixture of various materials: silicates, iron, but also hydrated minerals and sediments. Some areas, such as Terra Meridiani, were rich in acid sulphates, but rocks elsewhere, such as around the volcanic plateau Syrtis Major, were richer in clay and hydrated minerals. They are more neutral in their pH value and thus, in the view of the scientists, more suitable as a basis for life.

In the canyons and crests of the planet, the researchers discovered, among other gypsum and polyhydric sulfates - minerals that contain water in their crystal structure. According to Mustard, this shows that water was abundant and abundant on the planet during the first billion years of the approximately 4.6 billion year history of Mars. Also in the depth of the Valles Marineris, the largest canyon of the solar system, these minerals were found. display

The OMEGA data could also help to revise previous ideas about the past environment of Mars: Previously, the researchers assumed that the flat plains of the northern hemisphere may have been previously covered by an ocean. Then there would be traces of past water in the form of hydrated minerals. But the new data shows that the northern lowlands are made up of volcanic rocks that have not been altered by water. However, this contradicts the ocean theory.

Based on these new findings, Mustard estimates that areas such as Syrtis Major, Valles Marineris and Terra Meridiani are promising candidates for future Mars missions to collect and study rock and soil samples. The scientists of the OMEGA team have already developed a new, further improved spectrometer that will be aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter of NASA, which is due to launch into the Red Planet in August.

(European Space Agency, 22.02.2005 - NPO)