A research team led by London’s Imperial College has concluded that the surface of Mars has been arid for hundreds of millions of years.
The research team, which spent three years analyzing Martian soil collected during the 2008 NASA Phoenix mission to the northern arctic region of the red planet, challenges assumptions that Mars may have had a warmer and wetter period in its earlier history more than three billion years ago.
“We found that even though there is an abundance of ice, Mars has been experiencing a super-drought that may well have lasted hundreds of millions of years,” said Dr. Tom Pike, the lead author on the study. “We think the Mars we know today contrasts sharply with its earlier history, which had warmer and wetter periods and which may have been more suited to life.”
The report is the latest to examine whether Mars hosted life in the past. In August of 2012, data from NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander suggested liquid water has interacted with the Martian surface throughout the planet’s history and into modern times. The research also provides new evidence that volcanic activity has persisted on the Red Planet into geologically recent times, several million years ago.
Measurements gathered by the space probe suggested that liquid water primarily existed at temperatures near freezing and that hydrothermal systems similar to Yellowstone’s hot springs have been rare throughout the planet’s past. Measurements concerning carbon dioxide showed Mars is a much more active planet than previously thought. The results imply Mars has replenished its atmospheric carbon dioxide relatively recently, and the carbon dioxide has reacted with liquid water present on the surface.
Earlier this year, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity discovered “bright veins of a mineral,” likely gypsum, dropped by water. The discovery is considered the first bit of evidence suggesting water had flowed across the planet.
The report comes as NASA and the European Space Agency are embarking on a mission to analyze soil samples on the Red Planet.
The mission to Mars will take over eight months, NASA officials say. The rover is expected to arrive on the planet on August 6, 2012. The rover is reportedly nearly seven foot tall and is twice as big as previous Mars’ rovers. Officials say the rover weighs over a ton, and it is expected to carry more than ten times the amount of scientific equipment sent with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers launched in 2004.