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article imageMars Curiosity Rover’s ‘anniversary’ in ancient glacial landscape

By Robert Myles     Jun 26, 2014 in Science
Torrejon - Ancient glaciers shaped the landscape of Gale Crater on Mars, while, in lower lying areas, rivers and lakes of extremely cold liquid water formed landscapes resembling those found in Iceland and Alaska.
These are the latest findings from analysing images taken by cameras on board NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express probe. Analyses of photographs showed concave basins, lobated structures, remains of moraines and fan-shaped deposits, all indicative of ancient glaciers once having gouged the surface of Gale Crater, a 154 kilometers (96 miles) wide feature just south of the Martian equator centred around Aeolis Mons (Mount Sharp), that towers 5.5 kilometers (18,000 feet) above the surrounding crater plain.
The 3.5 billion-year-old glaciation observed on Mars looks very similar to some glacial systems to be found on present-day Earth, says lead investigator Alberto Fairén, of the Centro de Astrobiología (INTA-CSIC) in Spain and Cornell University, NY.
“This crater was covered by glaciers approximately 3,500 million years ago, which were particularly extensive on its central mound, Aeolis Mons,” said Fairén, commenting on the findings.
Fairén added, “However, at that time there were also rivers and lakes with very cold liquid water in the lower-lying areas within the crater.”
The researcher highlighted that in ancient Martian times, the Red Planet was able to maintain “large quantities of liquid water (an essential element for life) at the same time that giant ice sheets covered extensive regions of its surface.”
The findings are especially poignant in a week that sees NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover’s first Martian anniversary of traversing the Red Planet’s Gale Crater. Curiosity Rover has completed its first Martian year — 687 Earth days — exploring that same crater which, all those eons ago, was covered with glaciers, mainly over its central mound.
The arid reddish-brown landscape criss-crossed by Curiosity was once home to glaciers, back when Mars-of-old must have held vast quantities of water. But Martian global hydro-geological cycles were much colder than Earth comparables; so much so, they induced the presence of a giant ocean, partially ice-covered and rimmed by glaciers on the lower plains of the northern hemisphere.
Drawing comparisons with Earth, Fairén pointed to the Icelandic glacier known as Breiðamerkurjökull.
Linear and lobate morphologies on the highest reaches of Aeolis Mons  shaped by glacial activity in ...
Linear and lobate morphologies on the highest reaches of Aeolis Mons, shaped by glacial activity in the past. Right: Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, Iceland, a terrestrial analog of the glacial remains identified on Gale Crater, Mars.
CTX-MRO-NASA/Google maps
“Breiðamerkurjökull,” said Fairén, “shows evident resemblances to what we see on Gale crater, and we suppose that is very similar to those which covered Gale’s central mound in the past.”
Studying the images, the researchers found a number of other terrestrial glacial features matched those found on Mars, such as the Malaspina glacier in Alaska and others located in northern regions of Canada and the Antarctic.
Fairén considered the latest study of glaciation on Mars provided strong evidence for a “global ‘cold and wet’ model of the ancient Martian environment.” That, he said, would explain “both the geological traces of the presence of liquid water in the past which cover the entire planet together with the climatic models which have demonstrated that Mars was never a warm planet”.
With specific reference to Gale Crater, the researchers believe this massive geographical feature was excavated, having taken a hit from a huge meteorite, 3,600 million years ago and was covered by glaciers shortly afterwards.
Fairén concedes that glaciers might well have covered the area of impact before the cataclysmic collision. In which case, he added, “Glaciers would have re-covered the recently formed crater in a very short time.”
That led Fairén to speculate as to the interesting possibilities for life on Mars the meteor impact would have thrown up. He concluded, “The energy delivered after the impact, combined with the ice on the surface, could have generated very interesting environments from an astro-biological point of view, like hydrothermal areas for example.”
Even on Earth the existence of life in deep ocean hydrothermal vents is a relatively recent finding, having been first discovered in 1977. Before 1977, scientists believed all forms of life, plant or animal, depended on the Sun for energy. But the existence of microbes living in vent ecosystems on Earth demonstrated how live could exist by tapping into the chemical energy in geyser water billowing out from the sea floor, energy that originates within the Earth itself.
So if the impossible is possible on Earth, would ancient Mars be so different?
More about curiosity rover, mars curiosity rover, NASA, glaciation on Mars, Gale Crater
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