Martian Invasion: Probing Lively Puzzles on the Red Planet

Article excerpt

Just 2 months ago, Mars loomed high in the sky, its ruddy countenance so close that anyone with a backyard telescope could make out the planet's white south-polar cap and a central smudge known as Syrtis Major. Not in 60,000 years had Mars and Earth been so close, and they won't be again for another 2 centuries. But even as the two planets now drift slowly apart, three envoys from Earth are racing to the Red Planet.

If all goes according to plan, the European Space Agency's Mars Express will begin orbiting Mars next month, using radar to search for hidden reservoirs of water. The craft will also jettison a suitcase-size stationary lander, Beagle-2, that will look for signs of life by examining soil at and just below the surface of a region called Isidis Planitia.

Then, in January, two NASA craft bearing identical rovers, named Spirit and Opportunity, will touch down in regions of the planet that may once have had water coursing through them and so could have hosted primitive life.

"Successful landings of all three spacecraft will more than double our experience with the... environments of Mars," says James B. Garvin, NASA's Mars-program scientist in Washington, D.C. "I am anticipating major breakthroughs in our understanding."

Planetary scientists studying Mars could use a breakthrough. Recent evidence has shaken what has been one of the most tantalizing core beliefs about the Red Planet--that ancient Mars was much wetter and warmer than the planet is today and even harbored a planetwide ocean.

On the one hand, the planet's now bone-dry surface is scarred by sinuous channels, apparent lake beds, deep canyons, and thousands of gullies. These all bear the marks of having been carved by liquid water. On the other hand, there's a troubling scarcity of minerals such as limestone and other carbonates, which commonly form in the presence of liquid water.

There is a "direct conflict" between the geological and mineralogical evidence for water on Mars, says Bruce M. Jakosky of the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Determining whether parts of Mars ever carried a substantial amount of liquid water and, if so, for how long would help answer the ultimate question about the Red Planet: Is it now or has it ever been a living world?

MISSING MINERALS The water conundrum intensified late last summer, when Philip R. Christensen of the Arizona State University in Tempe and his colleagues reported the results of a 6-year study with an infrared spectrometer aboard the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor observatory. The instrument scrutinized large swaths of the Martian surface and atmosphere for carbonates, minerals that are associated with water. On Earth, carbonates such as limestone form when carbon dioxide from the atmosphere dissolves in water, making carbonic acid. The acid eats away at rocks, and their remains precipitate out as carbonate deposits. A notable example is the White Cliffs of Dover.

Researchers had been looking for carbonates on Mars for more than a decade, and in the Aug. 22 Science, Christensen's team announced that it had finally found some. But there was little reason to rejoice. Carbonates were detected in only small amounts--up to 5 percent--in the planet's surface dust.

"We believe that the relatively small amounts that we see probably did not come from oceans, but from trace amounts of water vapor in the atmosphere interacting directly with dust," Christensen says.

This study, as well as other new evidence (see page 301), "really points to a cold, frozen, icy Mars that has probably always been that way, as opposed to a warm, humid, oceanic Mars some time in the past," Christensen adds. The extensive carbonate layers that would have formed early in Martian history if the climate had been warm and oceans plentiful "are simply not there," he says.

There may be geologic processes that could have hidden or transformed carbonates at the Martian surface to make them undetectable from orbit, acknowledges Chris Chyba of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. …