Mars Express Orbiter
- Glass deposits in impact craters on Mars have been detected in observations by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
- Impact glass could preserve evidence about whether Mars ever had life.
NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has detected deposits of glass within impact craters on Mars. Though formed in the searing heat of a violent impact, such deposits might provide a delicate window into the possibility of past life on the Red Planet.
During the past few years, research has shown evidence about past life has been preserved in impact glass here on Earth. A 2014 study led by scientist Peter Schultz of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, found organic molecules and plant matter entombed in glass formed by an impact that occurred millions of years ago in Argentina. Schultz suggested that similar processes might preserve signs of life on Mars, if they were present at the time of an impact.
Fellow Brown researchers Kevin Cannon and Jack Mustard, building on the previous research, detail their data about Martian impact glass in a report now online in the journal Geology.
“The work done by Pete and others showed us that glasses are potentially important for preserving biosignatures,” Cannon said. “Knowing that, we wanted to go look for them on Mars and that’s what we did here. Before this paper, no one had been able to definitively detect them on the surface.”
Cannon and Mustard showed large glass deposits are present in several ancient, yet well-preserved, craters on Mars. Picking out the glassy deposits was no easy task. To identify minerals and rock types remotely, scientists measured the spectra of light reflected off the planet’s surface. But impact glass doesn’t have a particularly strong spectral signal.
“Glasses tend to be spectrally bland or weakly expressive, so signature from the glass tends to be overwhelmed by the chunks of rock mixed in with it,” said Mustard. “But Kevin found a way to tease that signal out.”
In a laboratory, Cannon mixed together powders with a similar composition of Martian rocks and fired them in an oven to form glass. He then measured the spectral signal from that glass.
Once Mustard had the signal from the lab glass, he used an algorithm to pick out similar signals in data from MRO’s Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), for which he is the deputy principal investigator.
The technique pinpointed deposits in several Martian crater central peaks, the craggy mounds that often form in the center of a crater during a large impact. The fact the deposits were found on central peaks is a good indicator that they have an impact origin.
Knowing that impact glass can preserve ancient signs of life — and now knowing that such deposits exist on the Martian surface today — opens up a potential new strategy in the search for ancient Martian life.
“The researchers’ analysis suggests glass deposits are relatively common impact features on Mars,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “These areas could be targets for future exploration as our robotic scientific explorers pave the way on the journey to Mars with humans in the 2030s.”
One of the craters containing glass, called Hargraves, is near the Nili Fossae trough, a 400-mile-long (about 650-kilometer-long) depression that stretches across the Martian surface. The region is one of the landing site contenders for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, a mission to cache soil and rock samples for possible return to Earth.
Nili Fossae trough is already of scientific interest because the crust in the region is thought to date back to when Mars was a much wetter planet. The region also is rife with what appear to be ancient hydrothermal fractures, warm vents that could have provided energy for life to thrive just beneath the surface.
“If you had an impact that dug in and sampled that subsurface environment, it’s possible that some of it might be preserved in a glassy component,” Mustard said. “That makes this a pretty compelling place to go look around, and possibly return a sample.”
MRO has been examining Mars with CRISM and five other instruments since 2006.
“This significant new detection of impact glass illustrates how we can continue to learn from the ongoing observations by this long-lived mission,” said Richard Zurek, MRO project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, provided and operates CRISM. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages MRO for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver built the orbiter and supports its operations.
PRESS RELEASE (JPL) – The Beagle 2 Mars Lander, built by the United Kingdom, has been thought lost on Mars since 2003, but has now been found in images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Beagle 2 was released by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter but never heard from after its expected landing. Images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have been interpreted as showing the Beagle 2 did make a soft landing and at least partially deployed its solar panels.
A set of three observations with the orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera shows Beagle 2 partially deployed on the surface of the planet, ending the mystery of what happened to the mission more than a decade ago. They show that the lander survived its Dec. 25, 2003, touchdown enough to at least partially deploy its solar arrays.
“I am delighted that Beagle 2 has finally been found on Mars,” said Mark Sims of the University of Leicester, U.K. He was an integral part of the Beagle 2 project from the start, leading the initial study phase and was Beagle 2 mission manager. “Every Christmas Day since 2003 I have wondered what happened to Beagle 2. My Christmas Day in 2003 alongside many others who worked on Beagle 2 was ruined by the disappointment of not receiving data from the surface of Mars. To be frank I had all but given up hope of ever knowing what happened to Beagle 2. The images show that we came so close to achieving the goal of science on Mars.
HiRISE images initially searched by Michael Croon of Trier, Germany, a former member of the European Space Agency’s Mars Express operations team, provide evidence for the lander and key descent components on the surface of Mars within the expected landing area of Isidis Planitia, an impact basin close to the equator.
Subsequent re-imaging and analysis by the Beagle 2 team, the HiRISE team and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, have confirmed that the targets discovered are of the correct size, shape, color and dispersion to be Beagle 2. JPL planetary geologist Tim Parker, who has assisted in the search and processed some of the images said, “I’ve been looking over the objects in the images carefully, and I’m convinced that these are Beagle 2 hardware.”
Analysis of the images indicates what appears to be a partially deployed configuration, with what is thought to be the rear cover with its pilot/drogue chute (still attached) and main parachute close by. Due to the small size of Beagle 2 (less than 7 feet, or 2 meters across for the deployed lander) it is right at the limit of detection of HiRISE, the highest-resolution camera orbiting Mars. The targets are within the expected landing area at a distance of about three miles (five kilometers) from its center.
“I can imagine the sense of closure that the Beagle 2 team must feel,” said Richard Zurek of JPL, project scientist now for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and previously for NASA’s still-missing 1998 Mars Polar Lander. “MRO has helped find safe landing sites on Mars for the Curiosity and Phoenix missions and has searched for missing craft to learn what may have gone wrong. It’s an extremely difficult task, as the craft are small and the search areas are vast. It takes the best camera we have in Mars orbit and work by dedicated individuals to be successful at this.”
HiRISE is operated by the University of Arizona, Tucson. The instrument was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colorado. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project is managed for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, by JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California