Brown geologist finds evidence supporting ancient ocean on Mars

December 09, 1999

In an article to be published in Science magazine Dec. 10, Brown University planetary geologist James Head and five colleagues present topographical measurements which they say are consistent with an ocean that dried up hundreds of millions of years ago. The measurements were taken by the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter, an instrument aboard the unmanned spacecraft Mars Global Surveyor which is circling the planet.

Head's team set out to test the hypotheses of scientists who suggested the possibility of oceans on Mars in 1989 and 1991. The team used data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter, which beamed a pulsing laser to Mars' surface. Scientists measured the time it took for the laser to return to the satellite; the laser traveled a shorter length of time from mountain peaks and longer from craters. MOLA is the first instrument to provide scientists with the information they used to construct a topographic map of the entire surface of the planet.

For years, scientists have known about channels in which water once flowed into the northern lowlands on the surface of Mars.

"The question is whether it collected in large standing bodies," Head said. "This is the first time we could get instruments to comprehensively test these ideas."

According to Head, the team has found four types of quantitative evidence that points to the possible ancient ocean: Head's team concludes that further tests are necessary, including analysis from meteorites from Mars and of landing sites, checking for the presence of salts that may be related to former oceans.

The importance of determining whether there were ancient oceans - and life - on Mars is that scientists may be able to learn more about long-term climate change and why climate changed on Mars, which has relevance to the future of the Earth, Head said.
Head is available for interviews at 401-863-2526.

Brown University

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