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Asteroid Impacts May Have Created Liquid Water on Mars, Study Finds

Ross Kelly



Asteroid impacts may have helped create running water on Mars, according to researchers at the University of Glasgow.


Analysis carried out by researchers at the University of Glasgow has revealed “unprecedented details” about how asteroid strikes could create temporary sources of liquid water on Mars.

The revelations were revealed in a new study, published in the Science Advances journal. The study, which saw researchers from Glasgow work closely with international colleagues, used a sophisticated technique known as ‘electron backscatter diffraction’ to analyse parts of two different Martian meteorites, known as ‘nakhlites’.

Nakhlites are a type of volcanic Martian meteorites which take their name from El Nakhla in Egypt, the spot where the first flurry fell to earth in 1911.

According to the research team, these meteorites contain evidence of the action of liquid water on Mars around 633 million years ago. The process which generated these fluids has been a mystery until now, researchers said.

Dr Luke Daly, research associate in solar system science at the University’s School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, is the lead author of the paper, titled ‘Boom boom pow: shock-facilitated aqueous alteration and evidence for two shock events in the Martian nakhlite meteorites’.

Dr Daly explained: “There’s a huge amount of information about Mars locked inside the little pieces of the red planet which have fallen to Earth as meteorites, which new analytical techniques can allow us to access.

“By applying this electron backscatter diffraction technique, we’ve been able to look very closely at the orientation and deformation of minerals across the whole area of these samples of Martian rock to look for patterns.”

He added: “What we’ve seen is that the pattern of deformation in the minerals matches exactly the distribution of weathering veins that formed from the Martian fluids. This coincidence provides us with exciting data about two big events from the history of those rocks. The first is that, about 633 million years ago, they were hit by an asteroid that deformed them into part of an impact crater.”

The impact of this asteroid strike was hot enough to melt ice beneath the Martian surface and send it “rushing through newly-formed cracks in the rock”, Dr Daly explained. This process may have formed a temporary hydrothermal system below the Martian surface; altering the composition of the minerals contained within those rocks.

Additional analysis of the rocks shows that they were struck twice. A second impact around 11 million years ago is likely to have blasted rocks off the surface of the planet and, ultimately, towards the earth.

The findings of this study, researchers believe, could provide new details on the formation of the Martian landscape. It is believed that frequent asteroid strikes on the Martian surface may have had similar effects on underground ice throughout history, with similar hydrothermal systems – and liquid water sources – being created all over the red planet.

Dr Daly said: “We’re currently trying to understand Martian geology through these meteorites without knowing what part of Mars’ surface these so-called nakhlites came from.

“Our new findings tightly constrain the possible origins of the nakhlites – we now know that we’re looking for a complex volcanic edifice, about 1.3-1.4 billion years old, with one crater around 633 million years old and another one about 11 million years old.

“Very few places on Mars could fit that bill. It’s a piece of interplanetary detective work which is still ongoing, but we’re keen to crack the case.”

Ross Kelly

Staff Writer

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