Mars may have been wetter and more habitable than we thought

A new study published in Nature Communications conducted shock experiments on Martian meteorites to show that they originally contained water, and hints at the possibility of ancient Mars being water-rich and therefore habitable.

    2017/03/08

NSFW    LAS VEGAS — Mars may not have been an arid wasteland after all, according to a new study suggesting the Red Planet may have been far more habitable than previously thought.

Martian meteorites contain a specific mineral that has long led scientists to believe the planet had an ancient, dry environment. The mineral, called merrillite, contains no water or hydrogen — which led to the assumption that its Martian origins were likewise devoid of liquid.

But new research from a team at the University of Las Vegas-Nevada, and published in the journal Nature Communications, now suggests that merrillite was originally a hydrogen-containing mineral, and that the Mars may have had a more water-rich history.

When an asteroid or comet collides with the planet, the force of the collision propels Martian rocks containing whitlockite out into space.

The UNLV researchers theorized that when these rocks enter the Earth’s atmosphere as meteors, the shock, pressure, and high temperatures sustained during impact dehydrate the mineral, turning it into merrillite.

They tested the theory by blasting synthetic whitlockite with a gas-powered gun at speeds of more than 1,600 miles per hour, and huge amounts of pressure.

The shock experiments were sustained for only a fraction of a second, but already resulted in partial conversion, with 36% of the mineral transformed to merrillite.

The findings suggest Mars could have had a more abundant water supply. It also hints at the possibility of life on the Red Planet, as whitlockite is water-soluble and contains phosphorous — an essential element for life.

More detailed studies of Martian meteorites may provide more insight, but a Martian rock taken and transported to Earth will likely be needed for confirmation.

For now, scientists need to make do with thermal imaging and rock sample analyses from the rovers.
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