Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter detects impact glass
NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has detected deposits of impact glass on the Red Planet that may provide a fresh avenue for investigating the question of whether life ever existed there. The hope is that glass forged in the intense conditions created by an asteroid impact may have preserved microscopic signs of life, as it has here on Earth.
Detecting the signatureof the glass deposits proved to be no small feat for the MRO, as theweak spectral signal from the glass is usually overwhelmed by the rockentombed inside it.
In order to make the orbiter's instruments moresensitive to detecting the relatively weak signal, JackMustard, deputy investigator of the MRO mission, placed a Martianrock substitute in a kiln and fired it in order to create an impactglass-like substance.
He then analyzed thespectral qualities of the glass and used an algorithm to pick outsimilar deposits on Mars. This resulted in the detection of severallarge glass deposits located at the central peaks of various Martianimpact craters.
“The researchers’analysis suggests glass deposits are relatively common impactfeatures on Mars,” states Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetaryscience division. Green continues, “These areas could be targetsfor future exploration as our robotic scientific explorers pave theway on the journey to Mars with humans in the 2030s.”
Impact glass back onEarth has been found to be a surprisingly effective medium forpreserving clues to life, such as organic molecules and even plantlife. Such was the case for a glass deposit found at the site of animpact crater in Argentina, which is believed to have formed millionsyears ago.
Scientist Peter Schultzof Brown University, Ohio, who was responsible for discovering thepreserved specimens of life in the Argentinian impact glass, believesthat a similar phenomenon on Mars could provide clues to life havingexisted in the planet's ancient past. However, for organic moleculesto be preserved, they must have existed at the location and time ofthe impact event.
One deposit of glasswas found at the Hargraves crater near Nili Fossae trough, whichhappens to be in the proximity of one of the candidate landing sitesfor NASA's 2020 Mars rover. The discovery of the glass deposits maywell inform the eventual landing site of the mission, which willcollect samples from the Martian landscape for analysis and possible return to Earth.