AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Tag: Water on Mars

Proof of Life on Mars?

           On November 26th, 2011, NASA launched their Curiosity rover to mars to explore the Gale Crater: a 100 mile wide ancient basin. In a paper published by Nature Geoscience, the authors discuss rocks enriched in mineral salts found by Curiosity. These rocks serve as evidence of briny ponds that went through episodes of overflowing and drying out over the millions of years Mars has existed. The salt deposits in the rocks serve as a watermark for the transition from a wetter Mars to the freezing desert we know today.

         Gale Crater, the area being observed by Curiosity, formed after an ancient massive impact on the surface of mars. Sediment carried by water and wind slowly filled the crater and created a peak known as Mount Sharp. As Curiosity climbs the hill of Mount Sharp it observes the different layers of sediment built up on the slopes which hold clues to the environments of different periods of Martian history. Scientists have noticed a trend from a wet landscape to a drier one as Curiosity continues up the mountain. 

“Understanding when and how the planet’s climate started evolving is a piece of another puzzle: When and how long was Mars capable of supporting microbial life at the surface?” Said lead author William Rapin of Caltech

    With the proof of water once existing on the surface comes the possibility of Mars once harbouring life. With the new evidence being reported by Curiosity it’s obvious that Mars once contained water and has been experiencing a drying period ever since. What were once lakes possibly containing life are now barren craters. Did Mars once support life? Time will tell as Curiosity continues its mission across the red planet.



New Findings Uncover Clues to Mars’ Watery Past

Mars used to have flowing water, a thick atmosphere, and a magnetic field. But now it is only covered with dusty riverbeds and its air is practically a vacuum. Now how did that happen?! In order to uncover what happened to the planet’s lost features, a spacecraft MAVEN was sent out to search for clues. The probe was able to fight through the red planet’s turbulent lower atmosphere and witness a shimmering aurora and solar storm. The data the probe brings back gives scientists a glimpse into Mars’ past and scientists have now presented the mission’s first findings.


Mars was a different planet in a different solar system billions of years ago. Scientists believe the planet was stripped of its water and atmosphere because the sun was much hotter and radiating then. As Dave Brain, atmospheric physicist at the University of Colorado, said, “Imagine you have a pot of water on the stove and that represents the atmosphere. MAVEN is orbiting Mars at a time when the burner is at a low setting. And by looking at the steam, scientists can extrapolate back to a time when the burner is at a low setting.” The probe is jammed with instruments that count charged ions, measure solar wind, scan for ultraviolet energy, detect magnetic fields, and collect dust.

Thus far, the most impressive findings came from watching the effects of essentially a monster solar storm on the planet’s atmosphere. This was highly significant because, as Brain said, “solar storms are really windows to the past. We got to see what happens when a lot of energy hit all at once.” Solar storms can potentially strip away a ton of atmosphere and they are what most likely happened all the time billions of years ago.

One reason the red planet’s atmosphere is so susceptible to solar activity is due to its lack of a strong magnetosphere. When the sun gets riled up and fires dangerous and energized “blobs” at Earth, our planet’s electromagnetic barrier shields the attack and redirects it towards the poles. While traveling along the magnetic lines towards the poles, the solar particles pick up charge, which they release when encountering particles in Earth’s atmosphere, thus emitting light—an aurora.

Scientists were surprised when MAVEN witnessed an aurora on Mars since the planet does not have a magnetosphere. The aurora lasted five Martian days and potentially even enveloped the whole planet. This is a new kind of aurora for scientists as it doesn’t require a magnetic field. Unfortunately the team doesn’t have any noteworthy pictures of the aurora since the probe only caught it on its ultraviolet imager.

There were other impressive findings as well. “Mars has pretty significant topography,” says Stephen Bougher, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Michigan and MAVEN co-investigator. Surface winds bend over features like Olympus Mons, and those disruptions propagate upward into the atmosphere. “Just like a wave coming onshore would crest and break, atmospheric waves crest and break,” says Bougher. But those winds don’t even explain the presence of heavy dust particles high up in the Martian atmosphere. MAVEN collected dirt from more than 600 miles up that defied the dynamics of Martian gravity. “The puzzle is how did that dust get up so high,” says Brain.

These findings aren’t just flashy—they’re scientifically major. They will help scientists understand more about how and why Earth’s atmosphere is so stable, and give interplanetary scientists a better idea of what to expect in future Martian expeditions. “You can figure out what dosage of radiation astronauts would be getting as they set up shop on the surface,” says Bougher. “You don’t want to send astronauts to certain death without exploring the risks.”

Original Article

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HUMANS ON MARS!?!?!?!?!?

For many years people have known that there is water on mars, in its solid state at least. Furthermore, Mars’ extremely thin atmosphere has served to preserve the various topographical grooves that prove that there was ONCE liquid water on mars and that it flowed quite freely.


What piqued scientists’ interest was the discovery just a few months ago that some of these grooves, the smaller ones usually only 5 meters wide, would appear during Mars’ warm season, grow several hundred meters long, and then disappear when the climate turned cold. Additionally, the streaks often showed up on steep slopes and looked very similar to images of water flowing downhill on Earth’s surface.

Field erosion 01

The anomalous nature of these ephemeral grooves compared to the extremely wide ancient river pattern on Mars’ surface, led researchers to further investigate these sites.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) now equipped a new instrument used for the spectroscopic detection of minerals, meaning that it carefully takes pictures of the surface of an object in various wavelengths of light (x-ray, ultraviolet, etc.) in order to reveal higher levels of specific compounds and minerals, was the exact instrument for the job. In this specific case, researchers used the MRO to scan for salt in the unusual streaks.

Why Salt?

I’m glad you asked… Scientists have decided that, based on Mars’ surface samples, any salts on Mars’ surface must be magnesium perchlorate, magnesium chlorate, and/or sodium perchlorate; all of which are minerals that suggest that water could’ve been absorbed into the soil* from the atmosphere, via deliquescence, or from below the surface in an aquifer. When the MRO detected those salts and perchlorates in the streaks it was a definitive “Yes” to the question of, “Is there still LIQUID water on Mars?”


A hypothetical artist’s rendering of how big the aquifer could be on Mars. The Mars rover failed to detect the buried water because it was both extremely deep, and covered by a thick layer of frozen nitrogen.

The significance of liquid water on Mars is that, in the event that human’s travel to Mars, they would be able to begin growing plants. Plants that would not only provide them with food but also the most necessary commodity humans need to survive, oxygen. Plants need four main ingredients to survive: water, sunlight, nutrients from the soil and carbon dioxide. Up until this point, water had been the only missing piece to the puzzle, as Mars’ atmosphere is almost 95% carbon dioxide and is so thin (about 100 times thinner than that of Earth) it obstructs very little solar radiation [sunlight].

Equipped with my Celestron Powerseeker, my family and I took every opportunity we could to look into the depths of space, or at least the depths of our celestial neighborhood. We watched intently as the full lunar eclipse and the blood moon converged overhead. We spectated as the ISS sped across the sky in about 30 minutes on a cloudless night. When I first saw on Yahoo News that NASA had confirmed that there was liquid water on Mars, I was both excited at the new discovery and puzzled as to why everyone was so excited… anyone who has seen a picture of the planet already knew that Mars has water in the form of ice at it poles. Overall, my fascination with space led me to topics such as these. Although hundreds of questions were answered for me, many still remain:

Will NASA attempt to send humans to Mars? If so, when and where can I buy my ticket?

Will further studies find living organisms such as bacteria and protists in these water-streaks?

How big is the aquifer that the streaks could’ve originated from?

Will NASA attempt to establish a colony in Mars? If so, will the first infants born on Mars be considered “Martians”?

*soil being a relative term for the matter on the surface of Mars

For Cool Images of Mars’ Water Streaks see

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