Mars’ Cold and Icy Past Revealed: New Research Uncovers Subarctic Conditions

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By Lydia Amazouz Published on July 11, 2024 08:15
Mars' Cold And Icy Past Revealed New Research Uncovers Subarctic Conditions

Recent research has provided compelling evidence that Mars experienced a cold and icy climate in its past, comparable to subarctic conditions on Earth.

This discovery, published in Communications Earth and Environment, sheds light on the Red Planet's climatic history and has significant implications for our understanding of its potential to support life.

Examining Martian and Terrestrial Soils

The study focused on soils found in Gale Crater, a site on Mars that NASA's Curiosity Rover has been investigating since 2011. The researchers discovered that these soils contain a high percentage of X-ray amorphous materials, which lack the typical repeating atomic structure of minerals and are challenging to characterize using traditional techniques. These materials were rich in iron and silica but deficient in aluminum.

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The Rim And Floor Of Gale Crater As Seen From Nasa’s Curiosity Rover. Credit Nasajpl Caltech

To draw comparisons, the research team examined soils from Earth that share similar chemical compositions. They visited three locations with serpentine soils expected to resemble those in Gale Crater: the Tablelands of Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland, Northern California’s Klamath Mountains, and western Nevada. These sites provided a range of environmental conditions, including variations in rainfall, snowfall, and temperature.

The Study Site In The Tablelands Of Newfoundland. Credit Anthony Feldmandri

Anthony Feldman, a soil scientist and geomorphologist at the Desert Research Institute (DRI), emphasized the study's significance: "Gale Crater is a paleo lakebed—there was obviously water present. But what were the environmental conditions when the water was there?" By understanding these conditions, scientists can better infer the historical environment of Mars.

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Findings from Subarctic Analogs

The subarctic conditions of Newfoundland produced materials chemically similar to those found in Gale Crater, while soils from warmer climates like California and Nevada did not. This led researchers to conclude that cold, near-freezing mean annual temperatures are necessary to preserve the amorphous material in the soils. "This shows that you need the water there in order to form these materials," Feldman explained. "But it needs to be cold, near-freezing mean annual temperature conditions in order to preserve the amorphous material in the soils."

The study utilized X-ray diffraction analysis and transmission electron microscopy to examine the soils at a detailed level. These techniques allowed researchers to identify the chemical and structural characteristics of the materials, providing a deeper understanding of the environmental conditions that produce and preserve amorphous materials.

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Implications for Mars' Climatic History

The presence of X-ray amorphous materials in Gale Crater indicates that Mars experienced subarctic conditions, similar to those found in regions like Iceland. These findings suggest that Mars' past climate was cold and icy, challenging the notion that the planet was once warm and wet with seas and rivers like those on Earth. Feldman highlighted the importance of this discovery: "This study improves our understanding of the climate of Mars. The results suggest that the abundance of this material in Gale Crater is consistent with subarctic conditions, similar to what we would see in, for instance, Iceland."

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The study's findings also provide valuable insights into the preservation of amorphous materials. These materials are often considered relatively unstable, meaning that at an atomic level, the atoms haven't yet organized into their final, more crystalline forms. "There's something going on in the kinetics—or the rate of reaction—that is slowing it down so that these materials can be preserved over geologic time scales," Feldman noted. "What we're suggesting is that very cold, close to freezing conditions, is one particular kinetic limiting factor that allows for these materials to form and be preserved."

Future Research Directions

Understanding the cold and icy past of Mars is crucial for future exploration and the search for life. The preservation of water and the conditions that allowed these materials to form provide essential clues about the planet's habitability. By studying these materials further, scientists can gain a deeper understanding of Mars' geological history and the environmental conditions that existed billions of years ago.

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This research offers a new perspective on Mars' climate history, suggesting that the planet was once much colder than previously thought. These findings have significant implications for our understanding of Mars' potential to support life and the environmental conditions that shaped its geological history.

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