Understanding Mars

Digging, probing, soil analyses

Photo of Phoenix at work in the Martian Arctic

Phoenix at work in the Martian Arctic. With a fork-like probe, Phoenix measures the soil's conductivity. The circular marks left by the instrument and the shadow of the instrument can be seen here. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UA/Max Planck Institute)

Scientists can reconstitute the history of Mars by studying its geology. Some of the instruments needed for that purpose are designed to dig, probe and analyze the surface soil and beneath. By learning more about Martian geology, we can better understand the Earth's own history and evolution by comparison.

For instance, the Microscopy, Electrochemistry, and Conductivity Analyzer's (MECA) wet chemistry lab aboard the Phoenix Mars Lander tastes samples of Martian soil by dissolving them in water. It is capable of measuring the acidity in the soil and its mineralogical composition.

The Thermal and Evolved Gas Analyzer (TEGA) studies the Martian soil in a different manner to reveal other properties. It gradually heats the samples up to 1000 degrees Celsius to study the change from the solid to the liquid state and to the gaseous state. The presence of ice, for instance, can be detected in a sample by measuring the amount of energy it takes to heat the sample (if there is ice, it will require more energy).

The latest Martian probes are generally equipped with spectrometers, microscopes and organic chemistry laboratories to give us more information about the oxidized soil of our planetary neighbor.

Image of false-colour composite of the rock

This false-colour composite of the rock dubbed Bounce shows the rock after the Rover Spirit drilled into it with its rock abrasion tool. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell)

Image of Mars

Mars may have lost much of its atmosphere during asteroid impacts early in its history. (Credit: ESA)

Photo of the Lidar

The Lidar on Martian ground. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Texas A&M University)

Mysteries of the atmosphere

Atmospheric science studies variations in a planet's atmosphere, magnetosphere and ionosphere. The study of the Earth's atmospheric environment has given Canada solid experience that can now be used to study the atmospheres of other planets in the solar system, beginning with Mars.

This Canadian expertise was put to work with the Phoenix Mars Lander mission. A Canadian laser detection instrument called a lidar was sent to Mars aboard the Phoenix Mars Lander mission to unveil the mysteries of Mars's atmosphere. The lidar studied the lower atmosphere by looking at the clouds and aerial dust particles. A green light signal was emitted up to 20 kilometres above the landing site, up to three times a day, for a 15-minute period. The lidar measured the height and composition of particles in the atmosphere to learn more about the clouds, fog and dust.

The Canadian weather station (the MET) on the Mars Phoenix Lander also helped us to better understand the atmosphere thanks to the temperature, pressure, and wind data gathered. This will help to develop and refine Martian weather models that will be useful not only for future missions to Mars, but also to better understand our Earth.

Extraterrestrial life

Astrobiology, also known as exobiology, is the science that studies the possibility that life exists elsewhere than on Earth.

Confirmation that there is or once was life on other celestial bodies in the solar system would be of unprecedented scientific interest. Canadian scientists have and are studying meteorites of Martian origin as part of several missions, including the Phoenix Mars Lander, and they have confirmed the presence of water on the Red Planet. The next step in the international exploration of Mars is to search for signs of life with the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission!

The presence of water makes scientists believe that life as we know it might be possible on Mars. Ongoing and upcoming missions are examining the Martian soil composition to establish whether the elements necessary to life on Earth exist on Mars. This would be another step in determining Mars' habitability potential – its capability of sustaining life – and, possibly, discovering previous forms of life (most likely in microbial form).

Image of evidence that suggests primitive life on Mars

A NASA research team of scientists has found evidence that strongly suggests primitive life may have existed on Mars in a Martian meteorite found on Earth. According to several scientists, the rod-like structures seen here would be a fossilized form of Martian life. (Credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center)

Artist's image of water under the Martian surface

Artist's impression of water under the Martian surface. If underground aquifers really do exist, the implications for human exploration and eventual colonization of the red planet would be far-reaching. (Credit: ESA)

The study of small celestial bodies

Image of Martian volcanoes

Martian volcanoes, Ceraunius Tholus (lower) and Uranius Tholus (upper). The presence of impact craters on these volcanoes, particularly on Uranius Tholus, indicates that they are very old and are not active today. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems)

Image of presence of grooves over most of its surface

One of the most striking features on the 27-km wide, irregularly-shaped Phobos is the presence of grooves over most of its surface. Some measure 700 m across and 90 m deep. (Credit: ESA)

Canada has a strong community in the study of small bodies of the universe such as moons, asteroids, and comets. Meteorites are often samples of asteroids, comets and planets available to us here on Earth. Strong expertise exists in Canada in the study of these materials, as well as the craters they sometimes create on impact. In fact, Canada appears to be a favourable ground for meteorite discoveries. Scientists believe that the last Ice Age (during which the entire country was covered by a gigantic glacier), has left a large concentration of meteorites along the edges of the continent. Major crater impacts can also be seen in northern Quebec and in the Arctic.

Studying Mars' moons may also improve our understanding of the Red Planet. Mars's two moons, Phobos and Deimos, are believed to be asteroids themselves that were captured by the Martian gravity. They may also contain matter of early Mars from impacts that caused material to be ejected into space.

The Canadian scientific community is particularly interested in these moons as markers in the evolution of the solar system and of Mars itself. Meteorites and asteroids, like Deimos and Phobos, are witnesses to the Universe's birth. Unlike planetary rocks, they have not been reprocessed geologically (not having undergone dynamic planetary geological mechanisms) since their formation. Studying them is, hence, like looking back in time and seeing what the composition of the solar system was like. Studying Phobos and Deimos, as well as Martian meteorites, also gives scientists a hint on Mars' composition, but also on its atmosphere thanks to air trapped inside the rocks themselves.