Martian soda water, on the rocks

By Phil Plait | June 10, 2010 7:47 pm

Wow, that’s like three puns in one title.

spirit_comancheAnyway, scientists have revealed they have found large amounts of carbonates (minerals containing CO3 in them) in rocks on Mars. That’s kind of a big deal: it’s been expected that a lot of rocks would have this compound in them, because there’s lots of carbon dioxide afoot there, and plenty of evidence that Mars was once wet. Those two ingredients lead to carbonates. Yet the rocks looked at closely by the rovers have been strangely devoid of them.

For the rover Opportunity it’s not all that strange; the water on that part of Mars was acidic, and that makes carbonates tough to form. But Spirit is on the other side of the planet, and it was expected it would find carbonates all over the place. Well, turns out it finally has. Some rocks it examined back in 2005 are loaded with carbonates, but it took this long to figure that out because dust that got in the instrument on the rover screwed things up. The scientists had to do some heroic work to tease the data out.

At this point we’ve pretty much exhausted my knowledge of this, but happily we have access to Emily Lakdawalla and her blog, where she goes into detail about the rocks, talking to a scientist involved in all this, too. So go over there and get the rest of this interesting story.

And when you’re over there, don’t forget: we’re talking about a whole planet here. A world. And it was once warmer, wetter, with a thicker atmosphere. Sure, it was over a billion years ago, but it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on Mars when thinking about Earth. There but for the grace of random chance go us.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science

Comments (17)

  1. “The scientists had to do some heroic work to tease the data out.”

    “Carbonategate” incoming in 3… 2…

  2. I’ve got some hacked e-mails that prove the scientist used tricks to get the data out. They did this so they could spread the evil conspiracy that life might be on other planets. We all know life is here on Earth only. And life on Earth needs as little government as possible despite what the evil socialist Obama wants. We must stand up to the evil power who wants to explore the universe with science we need to believe we are the only ones in the universe and stop all this wasteful spending on the space program and on science in general. We have to trust our mommy instincts and not vaccinate our children because death is better than autism. We can take a couple of pretty pictures and determine the universe is dominated by electrical forces not that puny gravity. We need to stop telling our children we are an accident and tell them we were created by a super being who left some after the job was done. We can live life without knowing that burning carbon will make carbon dioxide and warm the planet. What the Earth needs is people to talk to others that are already dead. Whether their names start with t,k or m, they still have to say they miss you and not where the secret gold is buried. To find wells of water we need people with two sticks to find where to drill, or we need people to bend spoons for all the functions we need bent spoons for.

    (thanks Larian for setting me up)

  3. Monsignor Henry Clay

    “There but for the grace of random chance go us. ”

    God does not play dice with Martian atmospheres….

    I keed, I keed.

  4. Messier Tidy Upper

    Sure, it was over a billion years ago, but it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on Mars when thinking about Earth. There but for the grace of random chance go us.

    There but for Earth’s greater mass.

    The problem with Mars as I understand things (&, yes, I could be wrong) is that it was just too small a planet to :

    a) retain its atmosphere,
    b) get plate tectonics going &
    c) generate and maintain a magnetic field strong enough to protect the atmosphere from erosian by the solar wind.

    I think our solar system would have been much more interesting life-wise and perhaps have had three habitable planets if Venus had ended up where Mars is today and vice-versa.

    Cool news & good puns. :-)

    Or is that the other way round too! ;-)

    Finally, I wonder if there are any terraforming implications here? If we could somehow transform those carbonate rocks into warming Co2 which the Martian atmosphere could do with – unlike the Earthly and definitely unlike the Cytherean (Venusian) cases.

  5. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE

    @Messier Tidy Upper (#4),

    Hey, dude, you missed one: erosion, not “erosian”. :P

    Say: “AARRGGHH!!”

  6. Messier Tidy Upper

    “AARRGGHH!!” ;-) :-(

    Typos. Never can seem to catch them all. Sigh. :-(

    ‘Erosion’ is one of the tricky ones I can never quite recall how to spell too.

  7. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE

    Yeah, it’s difficult to proofread your own stuff. :-)

  8. But the Martians were unprotected in the war against the Erosians…

  9. DrFlimmer

    So, the rocks on Mars are frozen in carbonate? Someone might call Jabba the Hutt…. ;)

  10. Oli

    Mars is dead. We should focus more on the icy moons – they’re pretty much the only place in this solar system where we could find life that resembles that on Earth.

  11. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    See, this is what happens when Kirk pulls the Carbonate Maneuver – the real McCoy isn’t above a bluff.

    I think our solar system would have been much more interesting life-wise and perhaps have had three habitable planets if Venus had ended up where Mars is today and vice-versa.

    By your own reasoning then Mars would have even less of an atmosphere earlier.

    But, and to be nitpicky, I don’t think a magnetic field do that much to protect an atmosphere as the gravity well does. Solar wind erosion is some order of magnitude higher without an internal field and only the external ionospheric response wraparound field. But solar wind maximum are discontinuous. IIRC it’s ~ 30 % of Earth losses, and Venus and Earth seems to loose atmosphere at roughly the same rate.

    Plate tectonics is likely decided by enough water to recirculate oceanic plates so that the injected water give the continental crust its less dense rocks. No water breaks that differentiation; even though granite is an eutectic it’s hard to produce else. And Mars seems indeed to have a steady igneous core, see the recent results tying ALH 84001 to shergottites and the implications of ~ 4.5 Gy of same magmatic supply, and the methane found.

    An interesting idea how Venus lost its water supply is that the same last collision with a Mars sized planetesimal that hit Earth and resulted in a hefty moon from ejecta, was an Earth-Earth sized head-on collision for Venus. Hence the absence of ejecta to form moons, the slow retrograde motion and the hydrogen from dissociated water all blown to space.

    Since there are speculation that the Mars north/south dichotomy is a result of a Moon sized last impact as well, maybe Mars got just enough of Venus bad luck – it got Phobos but didn’t retain enough water. What if we could have had _three_ biospheres close together?

  12. John

    Does anyone know of any sites containing artists impressions of what Mars looked like when it was more “active”, had water, etc? I find it so hard to imagine, but utterly fascinating.

  13. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE

    @ John (#12),

    A good place to start is here: Terraforming of Mars.

    Also, here, and here.

    Although those sites mainly deal on the subject of terraforming Mars, the artists’ impressions of a terraformed Mars will give you some idea of what Mars may have looked like in the past.

  14. Gary Ansorge

    Bah! Humbug! Terraforming Mars would likely exceed in cost building space colonies capable of containing several billion humans and all their critters.

    I seriously doubt Mars could ever support anywhere near that number. Then of course, there’s all that pesky gravity and atmosphere to get through if you want to go somewhere else.

    Using mass to contain our air and protect us from radiation merely because it can generate it’s own G field is just silly. Break the planet into parts and make H.O.M.E.s for trillions.

    Leave Earth to those other denizens that might someday attain sentience. It would only be fair if we also tried to undo some of the damage we’ve done. You know, like CARETAKERS?

    I must be getting old. I’m increasingly intolerant of folk with planet fetishes.

    Gary 7

  15. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 12. John Says:

    Does anyone know of any sites containing artists impressions of what Mars looked like when it was more “active”, had water, etc? I find it so hard to imagine, but utterly fascinating.

    I’ve been searching for you – great fun but few actual hits – then Iwent to Google images & googled : “Mars oceans.” Success! Try here :

    http://www.google.com/images?hl=en&source=imghp&q=mars+oceans&gbv=2&aq=0&aqi=g1&aql=&oq=Mars+oceans&gs_rfai=

    &

    http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.johnstonsarchive.net/spaceart/wetmarsmap.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.johnstonsarchive.net/spaceart/cylmaps.html&usg=__R6niVEjSY6WXTA2u_9yF6LiLdsM=&h=720&w=1440&sz=289&hl=en&start=2&sig2=UKJNUtFfNKTIJNwhNj_zhQ&itbs=1&tbnid=s8Uiq4CPPUktqM:&tbnh=75&tbnw=150&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dmars%2Boceans%26hl%3Den%26gbv%3D2%26tbs%3Disch:1&ei=m3MUTPSrBYzXcJ7p-PoL

    (Martian ocean maps)

    &

    http://www.johnstonsarchive.net/spaceart/art-f.html (spaceart impression)

    I’d also check out illustrations in books and astronomy magazines where I’ve seen some superb artist’s impressions of that wet Mars whether imagined as in its warmer early past or its possible terraformed future.

    If you can find it somewhere I’d recomend Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The snows of Olympus – A Garden on Mars : The illustrated story of mans colonisation of Mars’ publishe dby Victor Gollanz in 1994.

  16. Messier Tidy Upper

    I’d also recomend Villard, Ray, & Cook, Lynette R.’s, beautiful and fascinating tome ‘Infinite Worlds : An illustrated Voyage to Planets Beyond our Sun’, University of California Press, 2005. I think that has a “wet Mars” illustration in it but I can’t remember for sure – borrowed it from local library & don’t own my own copy of it to check, sadly.

    Lynette Cook is a superb space artist and Ray Villiard regularly writes for Astronomy magazine – or was it Sky & Telescope?

    There was one old article from Ithink the early 1990′s in Astronomy mag too featuring glaciers onMars with some great illustrations- but I can’t seem to find it now -sorry.

  17. Messier Tidy Upper

    … & now I’ve found it. The article is “The Ice Ages of Mars”by Jeffrey S. Kargel and Robert G. Strom in the December 1992 issue of Astronomy magazine which is published by Kalmbach.

    It is the issue which has the Plieades on the front cover and the cover headlines /items are : “Building Palomars 200 inch, Great Lunar Eclipse, Which stars Will Explode” & at the bottom The Pleiades Winter Sky wonder

    Spaceart features a glacier with meltwater on the russet sands of Mars along with a blue-ish Martian sky and moons Phobos & Deimos along with an inset of the Mars from space with seas.

    I’d suggest you try contacting Astronomy and seeing if they have any back issues going that far back or try an internet search for it &/or its authors. Hope this is of interest & helps. :-)

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