Friday, April 21, 2006
These may look like abstract expressionist paintings, but in fact they're actually global maps of various minerals on Mars, created by the OMEGA instrument on ESA's Mars Express. The researchers' paper is here [PDF].
The big news here is that they've identified hydrated minerals at various places around the planet, which helps a great deal in sorting out the planet's geological history. Hydrated minerals need water to form, obviously, and on Mars this means you're looking at terrain that dates from the early days of the planet, and has survived more or less intact. ESA's PR plays up the usual "possible life on Mars" angle, the idea being that a young, wet Mars would've been much more inviting for microbes than the current situation. The artist's conception image at the top on that page shows ESA's upcoming ExoMars rover nosing around.
A few media stories about the new research: New Scientist PhysOrg.com.
It's a strange thing about Mars that the features that look the most superficially Earthlike (volcanoes, canyons, outflow channels) all seem to have come about long after the possibly-life-friendly epoch of Martian history had ended. If you want to look for fossil bugs, it appears that the best place to look is in the ancient, heavily cratered parts of the planet. You see those areas on a map, and you immediately think of the moon -- geologically dead, sterile, and uninteresting -- and your eyes glaze over. Or at least that's been the reaction in the past. I imagine we'll see a new crop of clay-digging robots sooner or later. The NewScientist article I linked to suggests that the 2009 Mars Science Lab rover might go to a clay region. Previous discussions seemed to center around sending it to Terra Meridiani, where the Opportunity rover is still poking around, which I thought was kind of silly. If you're going to go to Mars, you may as well go somewhere new on Mars.