Wetter Red Planet? Ancient Mars May Have Had More Water Than Thought

This point towards the fact the there was presence of more water on the Red Planet at a time.

Scientists at the University of Nevada created a synthetic version of whitlockite, complete with hydrogen. They smashed the stuff with metal plates blasted from a gas-pressurized gun at up to 1,680 miles per hour (2,700 km/h) to simulate an asteroid strike, then used X-ray beams to study the composition of the "shocked" sample.

Sometimes pieces of rock from Mars land on Earth. When subjected to shock-compression, whitlockite dehydrates and subsequently produces merrillite, a mineral common to Martian meteors.

A new study found that a mineral - merellite - found in Martian meteorites may not be proof of a dry Mars at all.

Tschauner explained that because whitlockite can be dissolved in water and contains phosphorous, the research could indicate that life is possible on Mars. Combined with recent evidence that shows that liquid water still exists on Mars' surface - albeit intermittently - this raises new questions about whether or not Mars had life in the past (or even today).

"If even a part of merrillite had been whitlockite before, it changes the water budget of Mars dramatically", Oliver Tschauner, professor of research in the Department of Geoscience at UNLV and co-leader of the study, said in a statement.

"The overarching question here is about water on Mars and its early history on Mars: Had there ever been an environment that enabled a generation of life on Mars?"

In contrast to the meteorite impact, the temperature and pressure produced in the shock experiment prevailed just for 100 billionths of a second.

For the sake of their study - titled "Shock-Transformation of Whitlockite to Merrillite and the Implications for Meteoritic Phosphate", which appeared recently in the journal Nature Communications - the worldwide research team considered another possibility.

At Berkeley the researchers used an X-ray beam to study the microscopic structure of shocked whitlockite samples in a technique called X-ray diffraction.

Researchers achieved simulated collisions by firing fragments of the synthetic whitlockite against metal plates at extreme speeds.

Adcock and Tschauner are now trying to use infrared light at ALS to study actual Martian meteorite samples and are also planning X-ray studies of these actual samples.

Mars is roughly the same age as the Earth (4.6 billion years), and yet the two planets look vastly different for their age at present (one covered in water and teeming with life, the other cold, barren and deserted). Scientists now hope to prove that the conversion had actually taken place, by studying the meteorites on Earth and looking for traces of water.

This study was published today on February 6, 2017 in the journal Nature.

  • Carolyn Briggs