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15-million-year-old crater on Earth reveals clues about Mars’ watery past

By Fabrice Pierre-Toussaint

Contributing Writer for Telegraph Local | See my LinkedIn


Ries Crater, or Nördlinger Ries, is located in western Bavaria, Germany, and formed roughly 15 million years ago, when a meteor struck. This site has well-preserved rocks and minerals that show resemblance to the Martian surface. As a result, samples from this impact site on Earth may shed light on Mars’ past, according to a new study.

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 “The question that drives our interests isn’t whether there’s life on present-day Mars,” Tim Lyons, a professor of biogeochemistry at the University of California, Riverside and co-author of the new study, said in his statement, describing the new research. “We are driven instead by asking whether there was life on Mars billions of years ago, which seems significantly more likely.”

Today, Mars is too cold to contain liquid water on its surface, which is a requirement for life as we know it on Earth. However, 4 billion years ago, Mars may have been warm enough for surface oceans and, possibly, life, according to the study. “To have made the planet warm enough for liquid surface water, its atmosphere would likely have needed an immense amount of greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide specifically,” Chris Tino, a graduate student in biogeochemistry at UC Riverside and co-first author of the paper, said in the statement. 

According to space.com, The researchers studied rock samples from Ries Crater, which was once a body of water. Their findings show that the samples have a high pH based on the ratio of nitrogen isotopes, as well as a high alkalinity, which indicates an imbalanced pH level. Mars 2020, the rover will hunt for signs of habitable environments on Mars while searching for signs of past microbial life. The robotic adventurer will also cache a series of samples that can be returned to Earth with a future mission.

The mission is currently slated to blast off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in July or August 2020, when Earth and Mars are positioned to require the least amount of power for interplanetary travel. It is scheduled to land in February 2021, with an initial mission duration of at least one Martian year, or 687 Earth-days. The car-sized rover is about 10 feet long (not including the arm), 9 feet wide, and 7 feet tall (about 3 meters long, 2.7 meters wide, and 2.2 meters tall). At 2,314 lbs. (1,050 kilograms), it weighs less than a compact car.

Furthermore, studying the alkalinity, pH and nitrogen content of samples from the Ries Crater could help the researchers better understand the properties of ancient water on Mars and, in turn, determine the amount of carbon dioxide that was in the planet’s atmosphere billions of years ago. 

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Although highly unlikely that Mars had enough oxygen to support complex life, such as humans or animals, simpler microorganisms could have survived if water on Mars had a neutral pH level and was highly alkaline, the researchers said in the statement. These conditions would indicate that the atmosphere had enough carbon dioxide to warm the planet and make liquid water possible, the scientists added.

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