Astronomer Ken Tapping looks over some of the electronics at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory near Penticton. Western News file photo

Star Gazing: Mars, the wet planet

Ken Tapping, astronomer with the National Research Council’s Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory

Nearly 30 years ago a colleague astronomer at the National Research Council was determined to detect water on Mars.

Water molecules can produce a characteristic radio signature with a wavelength of about 1.35 centimetres. He searched for these radio emissions using one of the largest radio telescopes in North America, the NRC’s 46 metre radio telescope at the Algonquin Radio Observatory. If there was a significant amount of water vapour in the Martian atmosphere, it should have been detectable. None was found.

Widespread scientific opinion at the time was that Mars is almost completely dry, with its polar ice caps made of frozen carbon dioxide rather than frozen water. However, despite this, we really wanted to find water on the Red Planet. It would increase the likelihood of living creatures and would make it easier for us to more easily live there. Apart from using water to drink and to grow things, we can, if we have a good supply of electricity, break water down into hydrogen and oxygen. We can breathe the oxygen, making us less dependent on supplies from Earth.

Our first strong evidence of water on Mars came in the late 1970’s, with the two Viking space missions. Each mission had two parts, an orbiter which would survey Mars from above, and a lander. The orbiters showed dried riverbeds, dry lakes and a host of the erosion and deposition features we associate with flowing water. At some point in its history, Mars was a wet planet. The landers saw barren desert, but with a frosting of water ice forming on the rocks during the cold Martian nights and evaporating in the sunlight. Subsequent orbiters, landers and rovers found copious and conclusive evidence that billions of years ago Mars was a very wet world. We now know a lot of that water is still around. When various Mars rovers drilled into or scraped the ground, they found a thick layer of ice beneath. They also found large deposits of minerals that require water to form. However, is that water permanently sequestered underground or is it actually contributing to Martian processes today?

The current atmospheric pressure on the surface of Mars is about 0.5 per cent of the pressure at the surface of Earth. The thin atmosphere and the low Martian temperatures mean liquid water cannot exist for long on the Red Planet’s surface. It has to either freeze or evaporate. However, orbiting spacecraft are detecting short-lived water flows on hillsides and slopes, where the ice layer gets near to or reaches the surface. The sun warms the ground, so that some of the buried ice melts. The water then flows down the slope as a muddy slurry, until the water evaporates or freezes. There are living creatures on Earth, ranging from bacteria to crustaceans, that lie dormant in dried up pools and frozen soils for years, decades or longer, until some liquid water appears. Then they become active, grow and breed until the water evaporates or freezes, when they go dormant again. It is not inconceivable on those sun-warmed slopes on Mars, where soils get warm enough to melt the ice, that there could be a brief explosion of life, followed by a long period of dormancy.

The action of solar ultraviolet radiation on the minerals on the Martian surface has led to the formation of perchlorates and other highly reactive chemicals not present on Earth. These are toxic to Earthly life forms, but a good source of energy for any living creatures evolved to use them. On Earth there are creatures living in environments too extreme for most living things. We cannot jump to conclusions about Mars; we need to go and look.

Venus is becoming more visible in the after-sunset glow, as a bright, starlike object. In the early hours Jupiter lies in the southern sky with Mars and Saturn to its left. Saturn is a golden colour and Mars is reddish. The moon will be new on April 15.

Ken Tapping is an astronomer with the National Research Council’s Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton.

Just Posted

Logging show moves to Kamloops

Arena construction in Vernon forces ILA Conference to move

Finessing the left hand turn in Vernon

LETTER: Vernon resident observes the “rules of the road”

Love of records enduring for Kelowna vinyl fan

John Gowland’s record collection dates back to 1950s

Robot caretakers could be in your future

Interior Health CEO says AI will revolutionalize medical care

Public invited to scholarship showcase

School District 22 scholarship showcase April 26-27

Your April 20 Morning Brief

What’s making headlines in the Okanagan and Shuswap

How to keep local news visible in your Facebook feed

Facebook has changed the news feed to emphasize personal connections. You might see less news.

Cars lined up in Vernon as gas hits 109.9

Gas wars continue with prices as low as $109.9 in North Okanagan

Trudeau ends 3-country tour with global reputation, alliances intact

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau finds footing on the world stage after China and India controversies

Province’s $6.5M will help women escape violence, Public Safety Minister announces

Mike Farnworth made the funding announcement in Surrey Friday morning

Trial for gangland slaying of Jonathan Bacon takes a turn

Charges for three men charged in the 2011 murder of B.C. gangster Jonathan Bacon have changed

Leafs’ Matthews has top-selling jersey, edging Crosby, McDavid: NHL

Austin Matthews jersey sales top Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby, Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid

West Vancouver police hunt for Grinder scam artist

Christian Michael Lee Richardson charged with fraud in relation to scam involving the dating app

Victims grant may miss needy parents due to eligibility rules: report

Only 29 of 50 applicants between 2013 and 2017 received the grant across Canada, a federal report says

Most Read