A Stony Brook scientist working with an international team of deep-space explorers has found tantalizing evidence that water once copiously flowed on Mars -- and possibly supported life.
The findings by geoscientist Deanne Rogers of Stony Brook University and collaborators in London are the second this month to make a case for an ancient aqueous environment on the Red Planet, now a super-cold landscape of arid deserts and notably fierce dust storms.
To find clues of groundwater activity, the team studied a deep subterranean region 3 miles below the martian surface.
"What we found were specific minerals that form only in the presence of water," said Rogers, an assistant professor of geosciences.
Data beamed from the eavesdropping spacecraft -- the Thermal Emission Spectrometer aboard NASA's Mars Global Surveyor and the Thermal Emission Imaging System on the Mars Odyssey orbiter -- aided Rogers and the other Mars explorers in their quest.
Sophisticated technology has allowed scientists to search in earnest for evidence of primordial martian rivers and streams -- and speculate about life on Mars.
For more than 80 years scientists knew water had to be there.
Iron permeates the planet and over the millennia interacted with the martian atmosphere of carbon dioxide and, obviously, water, they said.
Both compounds contributed abundant amounts of oxygen to the chemical reaction known as oxidation, which rusted the iron and colored the planet red.
Rogers searched a martian landmark known as the McLaughlin Crater, near the planet's equator northwest of Meridiani Planum, a vast plain and landing site for numerous space probes.
"If you're going to look for a place where life may have existed on Mars, this is a really good place," Rogers said.
Searching for water on Mars is a Stony Brook obsession.
Five years ago, Scott McLennan, a Stony Brook University geochemist, studying data from the twin spacecraft Opportunity and Spirit, concluded water once existed on Mars but was too briny to support life.
The new research suggests otherwise. Rogers and her team postulate that the 3-mile depth may have incubated bacteria similar to those pervading Earth.
"We don't know how life on Earth formed but it is conceivable that it originated underground," said Joseph Michalski, lead investigator of the Mars exploration project at the Natural History Museum in London.
Michalski theorizes the same may be true for Mars.
Searching for signs of water on Mars is an active area of scientific research.
Earlier this month, researchers at the University of New Mexico identified a new class of martian meteorite that likely originated from the planet's crust -- where water also possibly flowed, they say.Led by Carl Agee, director of the university's Institute of Meteoriticscq in Albuquerque, scientists studied samples of a Martian meteorite and concluded it contained more evidence of water than similar samples studied to date.