Evidence of Major Cataclysm on Mars Which Would Have Destroyed any Life
Analysis of data collected by the Mars Curiosity Rover revealed evidence of a past cataclysmic event that would have ended all life on the surface of the red planet. The event could have involved intense volcanic activity, or been the result of a massive collision with a meteor, asteroid or planet. Either way, this catastrophe ultimately demolished the Martian atmosphere.
When Planets Collide, Bad Things Happen
With the information provided by the Curiosity Rover, we now know that Mars possessed an atmosphere rich in oxygen about four billion years ago. The Curiosity also found proof that water saturates the Martian soil, and that at some time in the distant past liquid water flowed freely on the planet’s surface.
This all suggests that conditions on Mars billions of years ago would have been favourable for the development of life. Whether it possessed these conditions long enough for life to actually evolve remains uncertain. Since the solar system itself is estimated to be about 4.5 billion years old, the time frame would have been condensed and it’s possible that only simple life forms would have had time to appear.
What is known for sure is that approximately four billion years ago, something dramatic and catastrophic occurred that changed things on Mars forever. Scientists studying Curiosity data were able to deduce this through measurements of the existing Mars atmosphere, which revealed the presence of two different forms of the gas argon. One form was quite primitive and ancient, while the other was created more recently through radioactive decay.
There were significant differences in the ratios of the two gases compared to what exists on Earth. The best way to explain these differences, planetary scientists say, was if Mars had experienced some sort of atmosphere-killing event in the distant past. This would explain shortages of the older argon gas.
Volcanic activity could have caused such upheaval. But Dr. Christopher Webster, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, examined the Curiosity date thoroughly and as of now leans toward the collision hypothesis.
“Possible impact by a Pluto-sized body is thought to have stripped much of the atmosphere from the planet,” Dr. Webster explains. “Since then, the atmosphere has developed as a balance between volcanic injection and loss into space.”
In the first 500-700 million years of our solar system’s existence, Earth, Mars and other existing bodies were subject to constant bombardment by large chunks of space debris. These included massive asteroids and rogue planetoids that careened madly about the inner half of the solar system, occasionally slamming into Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars and the Moon with tremendous force. This period of time is known as the Late Heavy Bombardment , and if a Pluto-sized body did indeed smash into Mars it could have laid waste to the planet’s atmosphere quite easily.
The Volcanic Hypothesis
The collision theory has merit, and it could explain why Mars apparently lost its atmosphere so quickly. But recent discoveries have provided new ammunition for those who believe volcanic activity was most responsible for destroying the Martian atmosphere.
In May 2018, two planetary scientists from Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Lujendra Ojha and Dr. Kevin Lewis, published the results of their study of a region of Mars known as the Medusae Fossae Formation . This expanse of light, porous rock once covered an area of more than five million square kilometres, and after close analysis Drs. Ojha and Lewis concluded that it was composed of ignimbrite, a form of volcanic rock created by the sudden cooling of volatile volcanic gases exposed to the air.
“The Medusae Fossae was deposited during explosive volcanic eruptions more than three billion years ago,” they wrote, in the May 2018 edition of the Journal for Geophysical Research: Planets . “The eruptions that created the deposit could have spewed massive amounts of climate-altering gases into the Martian atmosphere and ejected enough water to cover the planet in a global ocean more than nine centimetres thick.”
Based on the results of their study, they concluded that Mars was far more active in its interior than previously believed. If volcanic activity had been as extensive as their research suggests, it could explain why the Martian atmosphere went through such radical changes and why it is composed of more than 95 percent carbon dioxide today (volcanoes release prodigious quantities of CO2).
Martian Apocalypses Both Real and Imagined
Interestingly, in 1909 scientists observing Mars through telescopes became convinced they were seeings signs of an apocalypse in action. An article entitled “ Life on Mars Ended by a Cataclysm ” appeared in the October 28 th, 1909 edition of the New York Times, describing the terrible scene supposedly unfolding on the Martian surface.
“A gloomy yellow veil has enshrouded immense tracts of the Martian surface,” wrote British scientists in the Journal of the British Astronomical Association. They claimed this veil had completely covered surface markings identified by famed American astronomer Percival Lowell as a network of canals built by a race of intelligent beings. The spreading of the yellow cloud followed closely on the heels of the observed cracking of the planet’s southern ice cap, and this led some to conclude that massive earthquakes, magnetic storms or volcanic activity had destroyed Martian society for good.
To their credit, many scientists dismissed this theory—and the idea that Mars was inhabited—even at the time. Ultimately, Lowell’s conclusions about the canals of Mars were proven false by direct observation. It is interesting to note, however, that Percival Lowell is still regarded as one of the founding fathers and leading lights of 20 th century astronomy. It seems that Mars has the capacity to evoke a sense of wonder and possibility in even the most highly-trained scientific observers.
More recently, plasma physicist John Brandenburg has received much attention for his assertion that a thermonuclear war on Mars wiped out life on the planet 180 million years ago. Brandenburg cites the existence of radioactive elements in the Martian soil and atmosphere as proof of this nuclear catastrophe.
“The Martian surface is covered with a thin layer of radioactive substances, including uranium, thorium and radioactive potassium,” he notes. Brandenburg points to elevated readings of the gas Xenon-129 in the Martian atmosphere as the most important evidence in support of his theory, since Xenon-129 is a rare substance which is typically found in the fallout of nuclear explosions.
At one time, Brandenburg believed these nuclear explosions had been generated by natural processes. But he later changed is mind, and now believes that nuclear weapons were used during a Martian Civil War that ultimately led to planetary extinction .
Most scientists who’ve studied Martian chemistry believe the Xenon-129 in the planet’s atmosphere was created by cosmic ray bombardment. They reject Brandenburg’s nuclear war scenario, which like Lowell’s theory of Martian canals seems to be built on too little evidence and too much speculation.
Predictably, Brandenburg has been dismissed as a crank by many. But he has worked for multiple scientific and educational institutions during a long and successful career, and like Lowell his scientific credentials are impeccable.
The Truth is Out There… Maybe Way Out There
Whether certain theories about Mars are accepted or rejected, invalidated or confirmed, one thing has become clear. Mars is a dynamic planet that has gone through profound changes The Mars of long ago was a dramatically different place than the Mars of today. It seems that conditions favourable to life did once exist on the planet, and that makes it impossible not to wonder if Mars once was inhabited. And if so, by whom or by what?
For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that extraterrestrial life did exist on Mars when there was an atmosphere. And let’s suppose they were at least as advanced than our civilization today. What would they have done if they knew or suspected a cataclysm was coming?
Would they have developed some plan of escape, perhaps underground or off-world to a nearby planet or moon (like the Earth, for example)? If they were far more advanced than us, could they have transported themselves to another dimension or plane of existence, possibly preserving the ability to visit this dimension on occasion?
These are obviously science fiction scenarios, and we have no proof of their validity. But our capacity to look back billions of years into the past is severely limited by the nature of our instrumentation. Consequently, there will always be a degree of speculation involved in such an endeavor. If we limit our imaginations, we may be ill-equipped to comprehend the possibilities of a limitless universe.
Top image: Planet cataclysm. Credit: elen31 / Adobe Stock
By Nathan Falde
Cosmic rays never make xenon 129. bombs or reactor meltdown are the only two options.
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The gradual loss of Mars's magnetic field is probably also a contributing factor.