Alpine Observer - North East Regional Extra
The many mysteries of Mars
Mars was known as the “fire star” to ancient Chinese astronomers, and scientists are still burning with questions regarding the Red Planet.
Even after dozens of spacecraft have been sent to Mars, much remains unknown about the planet.
Here are some of the biggest unsolved mysteries we have about Mars. Why Does Mars Have Two Faces? Scientists have been puzzling over the differences between the two sides of Mars for decades.
The northern hemisphere of the planet is smooth and low - it is among the flattest, smoothest places in the solar system, potentially created by water that once flowed across the Martian surface.
Meanwhile, the southern half of the Martian surface is rough and heavily cratered, and about 4km to 8km higher in elevation than the northern basin.
Recent evidence suggests the vast disparity seen between the northern and southern halves of the planet was caused by a giant space rock smacking into Mars long ago.
A Mars Methane Mystery
Methane was first discovered in the Martian atmosphere by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express
spacecraft in 2003.
On Earth, much of the atmospheric methane is produced by life, such as cattle digesting food.
Methane is suspected to be stable in the Martian atmosphere for only about 300 years, so whatever is generating this gas did so recently.
Still, there are ways to produce methane without life, such as volcanic activity.
ESA’s ExoMars spacecraft planned for launch in 2016 will study the chemical composition of Mars’ atmosphere to learn more about this methane.
Does Water Flow?
Although large amounts of evidence suggest that liquid water once ran on the surface of Mars, it remains an open question as to whether or not it occasionally flows on the face of the Red Planet now.
The planet’s atmospheric pressure is too low, at about 1/100th of Earth’s, for liquid water to last on the surface. However, dark, narrow lines seen on Martian slopes hint that saltwater could be running down them every spring.
Did Mars Have Oceans?
Numerous missions to Mars have revealed a host of features on the Red
Planet that suggest it was once warm enough for liquid water to run across its surface.
These features include what appear to be vast oceans, valley networks, river deltas and minerals that required water to form.
However, current models of early Mars’ climate cannot explain how such warm temperatures could have existed, as the sun was much weaker back then, leading some to ask whether these features might have been created by winds or other mechanisms.
Is There Life on Mars?
The first spacecraft to successfully land on Mars, NASA’s Viking 1, began a mystery that remains tantalizingly unsolved - is there evidence of life on Mars?
Viking represented the first and so far only attempt to search for life on Mars, and its findings are hotly debated today.
Viking had detected organic molecules such as methyl chloride and dichloromethane. However, these compounds were dismissed as terrestrial contamination - cleaning fluids used to prepare the spacecraft when it was still on Earth.