Mars quakes, ices, and places for …biosignatures?

by | November 22, 2023, 7:05 AM | Solar Systems

Credit: NASA

While asteroids are proving themselves more complicated than we expected, Mars, in a fit of publications, is also demanding attention for all its icy complexity.

Back in May 2022, the Insight lander recorded a Marsquake with a magnitude of 4.7. While not all that large by Earth standards, this was the largest quake ever measured on Mars. This raised the question: was it caused by internal factors, like tectonics, or was it the result of a meteor impact that shock the world.

So a search was launched. Missions from the European Space Agency, the Chinese National Space Agency, the Indian Space Research Organisation, and the United Arab Emirates Space Agency all combined efforts to search. According to a press release from the University of Oxford, “This is thought to be the first time that all missions in orbit around Mars have collaborated on a single project.”

And they found nothing… This null result implies that Mars still has a bit of geologic activity ready to shake things up now and then.

And those orbiting missions have plenty of science they can do when not searching for new impacts. For instance, data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, 2001 Mars Odyssey, and the now-inactive Mars Global Surveyor, have been combined by a collaboration led by Gareth Morgan and Than Putzig to produce detailed maps of subsurface water ice on mars. From potential buried glaciers, to ices trapped in crater floors, this team has puzzled out where water hides, waiting for future tech and potentially future humans to come and mine it for use in habitats and as fuel for space craft.

But before we put more humans on Mars, we really need to understand exactly what life may lurk… fossilized or not… in the Martian landscape. In a paper lead by Alexis Rodriguez, researchers map out the flow of water and work to find someplace where local life could have pooled.

And in Mars Northern lowlands, they found just what they wanted in the Hydraotes Chaos region. According to Rodriguez, “Initially biomolecules could have been dispersed throughout the volume of large groundwater filled cavities. As the water was released to the surface and ponded, the water went away leaving behind lags of sediments and potentially high concentrations of biomolecules.”

Collaborator Mary Beth Wilhelm added, “NASA Ames is considering the plains as a possible landing site for a mission to search for evidence of biomarkers, specifically lipids. These biomolecules are extremely resistant and could have endured billions of years on Mars.”

A few episodes back, we covered how researchers have found ways to search for ancient lipids in sedimentary rock. This future mission could take what we learned to do here on Earth – look for lipids and other biomolcules that may still be on Mars. Here is to hoping, this is research we’ll see in our lifetime.