Water on Mars May Have Had a Shorter Lifespan than Previously Thought

Sooraj Shah ’24

Figure 1: Using satellite imagery, researchers were able to determine that the rock layers in the Arabia Terra could not hold water for a long period of time 

The discussion of water on Earth’s twin planet Mars has become an intriguing topic in the past few years, largely due to its striking resemblance in size and location to Earth. It has been hypothesized that Mars was once a lively Earth-like planet that housed oceans and life, although present-day Mars tells a different story—until recently. Ari Koeppel, a Northern Arizona University Ph.D. candidate, partnered with the NASA Mars Data Analysis Program to thoroughly analyze layers of rock on Mars using the property of thermal inertia. This new method allowed Kroeppel and his team to connect the properties of the rocks to how long water may have truly existed on Mars. 

The study was conducted in an area called Arabia Terra, which consists of craters, volcanic remnants (calderas), canyons, and layered sections of rock. In order to carry out the study with the help of NASA, Koeppel and his team used satellites already in orbit of Mars. These satellites contained a variety of different instruments such as thermal detection and visual perception of the different craters and surface patterns present. These images were then used by the researchers to analyze the thermal inertia of the rock formations, which is how fast the material can gain or lose heat. 

The results showed that the crater and layered sections of the Arabia Terra contained molecules that did not stick to each other as well as previously thought. A decreased ability of the rock to hold onto its own molecules means that its ability to adhere to molecules of water is even lower. The low cohesiveness of the rock was evident by erosion, as even when water was absent, the rock continued to lose particles. This means that while water may have been present for a certain period of time in these areas, it could not have persisted long because the rock did not have the physical properties to hold onto it for a long period of time. 

Koeppel’s findings put a small dent into the theory of oceans and life on Mars, but it opens new gateways into finding out why water would only last in this area for a certain amount of time. Koeppell suggests melting of glaciers leading to floods or possibly a brief stint of groundwater may have been present, leading to the features in the rocks seen today. Further research will focus on analyzing other areas of Mars to create connections with thermal inertia in order to verify this finding.  

Works Cited 

  1. H.D. Koeppel, et.al., A fragile record of fleeting water on Mars. Geology (2021) DOI: 10.1130/G49285.1
  2. Image Retrieved from: https://mars.nasa.gov/system/downloadable_items/45626_PIA24383.jpg

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