Deep probe into ancient life on Mars sets time limits for life

Together with colleagues from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands and the Open University they have conducted a series of experiments to determine ancient water flows on Mars. 


The experiments, based in the University of Hull’s state-of-the-art Total Environment Simulator facility at The Deep, have recreated a range of possible ancient environmental conditions on Mars, which have left their remnants on the planet’s fossilised surface. 


These remnants, in the form of deep canyons and expansive fan-deltas of sediment, are the features over which NASA’s Curiosity Rover is currently travelling and systematically investigating. 


Professor Dan Parsons said: “There is consensus that water once flowed over the surface of Mars. What is not known – and hotly debated – is how wet and how long this was for. This is hugely important because the longer water is around in an available form, the more complex life can develop.


“The experiments we have conducted demonstrate how catastrophic water outflows, such as those from pressurised underground springs, could have formed features on the Martian surface billions of years ago, as opposed to water flowing on the surface or from intense rainfall. This provides evidence that water on Mars could have been much more periodic and consequently the time available for life to develop was more limited than currently thought.


“Our newly acquired lab data will also be used to determine the amount of time water was present in an available form on Mars by demonstrating that different canyon formation mechanisms take very different amounts of time to form such systems.”


Dr Stuart McLelland, who is director of the Total Environment Simulator, said: “From our combination of scaled experiments where we recreated water flows onto, over and through surfaces of sediment in the laboratory, we are now determining what combination of water flows have produced the features we see on the surface of Mars.”


The experiments, which took six weeks to complete, include detailed laser scans of the various surface features produced by combinations of water flow processes. The details of these scans will in turn allow the scientists to compare their findings with the features on Mars, being captured in high resolution images by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Funded by the University of Hull and the Dutch government, the project runs for another 18 months.


Wouter Marra, a PhD student from Utrecht University, added: “We have successfully recreated enigmatic landforms we see on Mars. We are investigating how they were formed and can use this to reconstruct ancient climates on the planet.” 


The interim findings were presented in Vienna at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly earlier this month. The assembly brings together more than 10,000 geoscientists from all over the world covering all disciplines of the earth, planetary and space sciences.


This is one in a series of science stories this spring as the University of Hull celebrates all things scientific during a special ‘science takeover’. The highlight of this will include celebrations to mark the 40th anniversary of the world changing research into the development of modern-day Liquid-Crystal Displays (LCDs), led by Prof George Gray at the University of Hull in 1973.


Image: Professor Dan Parsons at The Deep, Hull