Mars Believed Too Salty to Support Life

on February 23, 2008

BBC News: “Early Mars ‘Too Salty’ for Life” & ScienceDaily: “Unique Martian Formation Reveals Brief Bursts of Water” In a pair of stories related to our above item, new evidence gathered by one of the Mars rovers indicates Mars “was too salty to sustain life for much of its history.” Even the hardiest microbes would have found it difficult to survive amid brackish water. Meanwhile, a Dutch–American study indicates that unique geological features on Mars were formed by “brief bursts of water.”

The NASA Opportunity rover took a look at rocks on an “ancient Martian plain” that was thought to have once been covered in water. The rocks suggest the environment was “both acidic and briny,” and not a place for life to survive. Rover science team member Andrew Knoll, a biologist at Harvard, said the discovery “tightens the noose on the possibility of life,” which is certainly interesting for creationists to note.

The rocks suggest the environment was “both acidic and briny,” and not a place for life to survive.

For one thing, the possible implication that a noose was already there is intriguing—that is, that the possibility for life on Mars was always remote, despite astrobiologists suggestions otherwise.

BBC News reports that Knoll added that conditions on Mars over the past four billion years would have been tough for any life. Knoll explained just how distant the possibility is:

It was really salty—in fact, it was salty enough that only a handful of known terrestrial organisms would have a ghost of a chance of surviving there when conditions were at their best.

Nevertheless, NASA isn’t giving up its search; a new Mars explorer is set to land this May, and a next-generation rover, the Mars Science Laboratory, will be launched in 2009 and land the following year.

The Dutch–American research, referenced above by ScienceDaily and unrelated to the latest rover research, examined several geologic formations that suggested the rapid release of water from inside Mars. Scientists first reported this feature three years ago, but to date, there has been only speculation about how these basin “fans” have formed.

Faculty members at Utrecht University in the Netherlands “built” a fan to replicate those on Mars. Using a room-sized sediment flume, the team dug a sand crater, then simulated water flow to replicate the fan formation. They detail their work in the journal Nature.

Next, using topology data, the team calculated how long it would take rapid water flow to form the fans on the Martian surface. ScienceDaily carries the answer:

A lot of water? A short period of time? A one-time event? Sound familiar?

The researchers report that formation of stepped fans would only take 10s of years—not the hundreds to millions of years estimated for other Mars hydrologic events. But it would require a lot of water. And it would be a one-time event—the basin would not refill.

A lot of water? A short period of time? A one-time event? Sound familiar (Genesis 6–8)?

The team estimates the amount of water flow would equal the amount the Mississippi River transports in ten years. But since Mars lacks any such river channel, the team proposed the water was released from inside the Martian surface.

Of course, comparing Earth geology to Martian geology can be dangerous, since the environments of the two planets are so different. Nonetheless, this study reminds us of the powerful effect water can have on reshaping a planet—such as Mars or even Earth. Of course, accepting a Earth-wide watery catastrophe is still out of the question for old-age geologists, since it would undermine the entire scientific paradigm on the origin of Earth and life.

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