On Thursday, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) released images that uncovered an ancient, massive ocean on Mars that was bigger than Earth’s Arctic Ocean. This huge body of water once covered close to half of the Red Planet’s northern hemisphere, over 20 percent of the planet’s surface. It was over one mile deep in certain spots and contained 20 million cubic kilometers of water, more than both the Atlantic and Arctic Ocean, NASA announced.
The discovery of this massive Martian Arctic Ocean has given stronger evidence to the theory that Mars once harbored life. The ocean image proved that Mars was moist planet over 4.5 billion years ago. This ocean, bigger than the Arctic Ocean, changed scientific views dramatically. In 2005, Martian water was only thought to be an occasional and erratic presence. Just before these images were discovered and studied, the Mars rover Curiosity found that the Red Planet had over a billion years of water. Planetary scientist John Bridges of Leicester University, who worked on NASA’s Curiosity mission, believes Mars was capable of hosting life in the past, and his opinion was strengthened by the discovery of the ancient Martian ocean larger than the Arctic Ocean. “The story of water on Mars was an occasional flood every 100 million years….We now know there were long-standing bodies of water,” he stated.
The NASA scientists used three infrared telescopes; in Hawaii, the Keck II and NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility, and in Chile the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope to capture the images of the massive Martian Arctic Ocean. Over a six year period scientists looked closely at how various water molecules changed depending on their precise location and the season. The water on Mars is either like the earthen water that makes up the Arctic Ocean and beyond, with two hydrogen and one oxygen atoms, or in another form with made of a heavy hydrogen isotope called deuterium. NASA studied the deuterium deposits, as the more earthen water was lost Mars’ atmosphere. By examining sunlight reflected off of Mars’ surface scientists determined the composition of the vapors in its atmosphere left behind by the massive Martian Arctic Ocean.
Gernimo Villanueva, the scientist who first authored the Mars study, stated that “an ocean covering 20 percent of the planet opens the idea to…the evolution of life.” The study also found that although the massive Martian Arctic Ocean lasted for hundreds of millions of years, the thinning atmosphere and weak gravity of Mars lead to the loss of insulation, which made the water freeze and recede. Only about 13 percent of the ocean has been preserved inside the Mars polar caps.
The search for more evidence of life on Mars (or for information about the ancient massive Martian Arctic Ocean) will continue in 2018 with the release of the European Space Agency’s Exomars rover. Exomars will be looking for and studying chemical signatures of life, following up Curiosity’s detection of methane in the atmosphere of Mars. But this discovery of an ancient ocean larger than the Arctic Ocean on Mars will continued to be studied, and has sparked the hopes of all those who firmly believe life once existed, or still exists, on the Red Planet.
By Danielle Kral
Photo by Linda Tanner – Flickr License