From Mars: a giant bowl of ice cream for the holidays. It is easy to forget that there is still an ocean of water on Mars because it exists today almost entirely as ice. Recently released by the European Space Agency is a great photo of an ice-filled 50-mile-wide impact crater on the red planet. Scientists believe a layer of cold air keeps the water ice in the Korolev crater from melting year round.
It contains 530 cubic miles of water ice, as much as Great Bear Lake in northern Canada, and in the centre of the crater the ice is more than a mile thick. … The latest picture is a composite of five strip-like images taken from the European Space Agency’s Mars Express probe…
Stunning images from Mars have people across the internet wanting to strap on a space helmet and a pair of skates.
On Thursday, the European Space Agency released two gorgeous pictures of the Korolev crater, which the agency called an “especially well-preserved example of a martian crater” filled with ice.
… The ice is permanently stable because the crater acts as a natural cold trap. The thin Martian air above the crater ice is colder than air surrounding the crater; the colder air is also heavier so it sinks to form a protective layer, insulating the ice, shielding it from melting and evaporation.
Recent research indicates that the ice deposit formed in place within the crater and was not previously part of a once-larger polar ice sheet. …
Data now indicate that Mars’ northern polar region may contain as much water as all that’s contained on Greenland’s ice sheet — a vast tract of frozen water that’s up to three kilometers thick in some places.
Almost all water on Mars today exists as ice, though it also exists in small quantities as vapor in the atmosphere and occasionally as low-volume liquid brines in shallow Martian soil. The only place where water ice is visible at the surface is at the north polar ice cap. …
More than five million cubic kilometers of ice have been identified at or near the surface of modern Mars, enough to cover the whole planet to a depth of 35 meters (115 ft). Even more ice is likely to be locked away in the deep subsurface…
No large standing bodies of liquid water exist on the planet’s surface, because the atmospheric pressure there averages just 600 pascals (0.087 psi) – about 0.6% of Earth’s mean sea level pressure – leading to rapid evaporation or rapid freezing of liquid water and sublimation lof water ice.
Before about 3.8 billion years ago, Mars may have had a denser atmosphere and higher surface temperatures, allowing vast amounts of liquid water on the surface, possibly including a large ocean that may have covered one-third of the planet. Water has also apparently flowed across the surface for short periods at various intervals more recently in Mars’ history.
On December 9, 2013, NASA reported that, based on evidence from the Curiosity rover studying Aeolis Palus, Gale Crater contained an ancient freshwater lake that could have been a hospitable environment for microbial life.
Many lines of evidence indicate that water ice is abundant on Mars and it has played a significant role in the planet’s geologic history.
With plenty of frozen water, Mars has the raw hydrogen and oxygen needed for life. Does it also have the other four atomic ingredients for life as we know it, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur?
About 29 chemical elements play an active positive role in living organisms on Earth. About 95% of living matter is built upon only six elements: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. These six elements form the basic building blocks of virtually all life on Earth, whereas most of the remaining elements are found only in trace amounts.
Besides the fact that Mars’ thin atmosphere is 95.9% carbon dioxide, here’s a yes to surface carbon and sulfur on Mars:
… thanks to the intrepid rover, we now know that ancient Mars had carbon-based compounds called organic molecules—key raw materials for life as we know it.
… Curiosity’s latest data reveal that the watery lake that once filled Mars’s Gale Crater contained complex organic molecules about 3.5 billion years ago.
Hints of them are still preserved in sulfur-spiked rocks derived from lake sediments. Sulfur may have helped protect the organics even when the rocks were exposed at the surface to radiation and bleach-like substances called perchlorates.
Does Mars have the last two ingredients for life as we know it, nitrogen and phosphorus?
Here’s a yes for nitrogen:
A team using the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover has made the first detection of nitrogen on the surface of Mars from release during heating of Martian sediments. The nitrogen was detected in the form of nitric oxide, and could be released from the breakdown of nitrates during heating. Nitrates are a class of molecules that contain nitrogen in a form that can be used by living organisms. The discovery adds to the evidence that ancient Mars was habitable for life.
Nitrogen is essential for all known forms of life, since it is used in the building blocks of larger molecules like DNA and RNA, which encode the genetic instructions for life, and proteins, which are used to build structures like hair and nails, and to speed up or regulate chemical reactions.
Is there phosphorus on Mars?
Phosphorus is fundamental to life: It is part of the structural framework of DNA and RNA, it’s present in all cells, and it is the main component of bone and tooth enamel. It’s also essential to plant growth; the more phosphorus, the faster the growth and the higher the crop yield.
Yes, there is also phosphorus on Mars, a lot of it.
A trio of researchers at the University of Nevada has found that phosphate found in minerals on Mars, is far more soluble than it is in natural Earth minerals. In their paper published in the journal Nature Geoscience, the researchers describe how they synthesized mineral types found on Mars and then tested how well they dissolved in water releasing phosphate as compared to samples from natural Earth minerals. …
Most scientists agree that phosphate is a key ingredient for life. Put another way, they believe that life couldn’t have evolved without it. For that reason, scientists have been studying ways in which minerals that contain phosphate could have broken down to allow the phosphate to escape. Such studies have thus far found that minerals that hold phosphate on Earth are not very soluble—they don’t break down easily when soaked in sea water. That has led to what Earth scientists call “the phosphate problem.”
How did life get started on Earth if there wasn’t enough phosphate around when life was first beginning? Some have suggested the answer is that it didn’t, instead, it started on another planet, such as Mars, and made its way here via meteorites. Prior research has already shown that Mars has much more phosphate than does Earth. In this new effort, the team in Nevada looked at minerals that exist on Mars to see if they might be more soluble in water as well.
The main atomic ingredients for life exist on Mars, but not the right conditions as far as we can tell.
The main obstacles to life as we know it on the surface of Mars are radiation (both during the trip from Earth and at the surface due to lack of a robust magnetic field on Mars), a very thin atmosphere with little oxygen and the fact that Mars is always very cold (though not always below freezing.)
Curiosity’s onboard weather station, which is called the Remote Environment Monitoring Station(REMS), has measured air temperatures as high as 43 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius) in the afternoon. And temperatures have climbed above freezing during more than half of the Martian days, or sols, since REMS was turned on, scientists said.
To make Mars habitable we may want to introduce plants that thrive in cold carbon dioxide rich environments.
The soil needs more nitrogen, however, so a first step before plants may be introducing ammonia producing microbes. In a few hundred years, simple plants.
For reference, this chart shows the primary atomic components that make up the human body:
Pretending that I’m helping humanity with this post is my way to deal with PTSD nerves, holiday sadness and health stress. Mars is today’s calm constructive destraction. I hope life is going well for you and that you get to relax and enjoy a bit of love during this holiday break.