NASA Scientists Say Ancient Mars Had an Large Ocean

An artist rendering of what recent research suggests Mars might have looked like around 4 billion years ago, when most researchers think the planet was considerably warmer than it is today. (PHOTO CREDIT: Greg Shirah/NASA)
An artist rendering of what recent research suggests Mars might have looked like around 4 billion years ago, when most researchers think the planet was considerably warmer than it is today. (PHOTO CREDIT: Greg Shirah/NASA)

After six years of planetary observations, scientists at NASA say they have found convincing new evidence that ancient Mars had an ocean.

It was probably the size of the Arctic Ocean, larger than previously estimated, the researchers reported on Thursday. The body of water spread across the low-lying plain of the planet’s northern hemisphere for millions of years, they said.

If confirmed, the findings would add significantly to scientists’ understanding of the planet’s history and lend new weight to the view that ancient Mars had everything needed for life to emerge.

“The existence of a northern ocean has been debated for decades, but this is the first time we have such a strong collection of data from around the globe,” said Michael Mumma, principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard Center for Astrobiology and an author of the report, published in the journal Science. “Our results tell us there had to be a northern ocean.”

But other experts said the question was hardly resolved. The ocean remains “a hypothesis,” said Ashwin Vasavada, project scientist of the Curiosity rover mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Dr. Mumma and Geronimo Villanueva, a planetary scientist at NASA, measured two slightly different forms of water in Mars’ atmosphere. One is the familiar H2O, which consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

The other is a slightly “heavier” version of water, HDO, in which the nucleus of one hydrogen atom contains a neutron. The atom is called deuterium.

The two forms exist in predictable ratios on Earth, and both have been found in meteorites from Mars. A high level of heavier water today would indicate that there was once a lot more of the “lighter” water, somehow lost as the planet changed.

The scientists found eight times as much deuterium in the Martian atmosphere than is found in water on Earth. Dr. Villanueva said the findings “provide a solid estimate of how much water Mars once had by determining how much water was lost to space.”

He said the measurements pointed to an ancient Mars that had enough water to cover the planet to a depth of at least 137 meters, or about 450 feet. Except for assessments based on the size of the northern basin, this is the highest estimate of the amount of water on early Mars that scientists have ever made.

The water on Mars mostly would have pooled in the northern hemisphere, which lies one to three kilometers — 0.6 to 1.8 miles — below the bedrock surface of the south, the scientists said.

At one time, the researchers estimated, a northern ocean would have covered about 19 percent of the Martian surface. In comparison, the Atlantic Ocean covers about 17 percent of Earth’s surface.

The new findings come at a time when the possibility of a northern ocean on Mars has gained renewed attention.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Marc Kaufman

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