Potentially habitable flow-like features from Martian dry ice geyser dune spots

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Larger region of the Richardson crater dune field showing the dark dune spots and flow-like features.
Detailed zoom into the flow-like features around a small cluster of the spots on the dunes in Richardson Crater, Mars (Richardson crater in Google Mars). These dark dune spots are thought to be the debris of the hypothesized Martian Geysers and the fingers of the flow like features extend later in the year. The dark material at the end of the flows moves at between 0.1 and 1.4 m/day in late spring / summer on Mars. This example moves approximately 39 meters in 26 days between the last two frames.

The two main models involve liquid water - either interfacial layers, or else layers of water created through the solid state greenhouse effect. [1][2]

Animation centered on 72°01′12″S 179°24′29″E / 72.02°S 179.408°E / -72.02; 179.408 (location in Google Mars). Displayed region 188.5 meters by 172 meters. Dates of sequence: 19 January (sol 396), 24 January (sol 401), 29 January (sol 406), 10 February (sol 418), and 09 March (sol 444), all in 2009. All taken between 4.10 pm and 4.28 pm in Mars local time.

These features near the Martian southern polar region are associated with the Martian Geysers. Before these geysers were well understood, there was a lot of speculation about what they might be. The seasonal patterns they form resemble trees and vegetation, and in 2001 looking at the Mars Global Surveyor images, Arthur C. Clarke called them "Banyan trees"[3], saying, only half joking "I'm now convinced that Mars is inhabited by a race of demented landscape gardeners,"[4]. At around the same time, a team of Hungarian scientists proposed that they might be the result of spreading colonies of overwintering photosynthetic microbial life. [5]

Most of these patterns are now thought to be due to dry ice effects. Subsurface layers of dry ice are heated by the sun through the solid state greenhouse effect, and erupt as CO2 gas. The dark streaks, and spots are thought to be debris from the geysers, blown by the CO2 outgassing. These streaks are the "flow-like features", or FLF. What's interesting for the search for habitable brines is what happenes next. As Renno and Martinez put it[1]

There is mounting evidence that while dark spots and FLF form by “dry” gas venting, liquid brines form temporarily on them.

This would happen later in the spring and through to the summer. The dark streaks from the geysers begin to extend further down the slopes, sometimes at a rate of meters per day. There are streaks in both hemispheres but the details of how they form differ.

In the Southern hemisphere, they form in the debris of the geysers, and both of the current models for this part of the process involve liquid water[1]. In one of these modelsfresh water that forms as subsurface meltwater, insulated from the surface temperatures and pressures at 0°C below snow-ice packs. These are optically thin in visible light but opaque to thermal infrared, so trapping heat from one day to the next in a solid state greenhouse effect familiar in similar situations in Antarctica.[6]. The other model involves thin layers of ULI water (undercooled liquid water)[7] which form on the surface of solar heated grains, then flows downwards, supplying several litres of water per day to the features. In both cases they then pick up salts from the debris from the geysers, which let them remain liquid in the cold near surface conditions as they flow down the slopes.

The northern hemisphere flow like features begin as wind-blown features on steep slopes. They start to extend later in the year, similarly to the southern hemisphere features. However, if they involve brines, the temperatures are far lower, with surface temperatures around -90 °C, though in the models that involve water, the brines themselves would be at warmer temperatures than the surrounding dry ice. Also, though most of the models for the northern hemisphere features involve water, they can also be explained with dry ice and cascading dust. [1]

The southern hemisphere Richardson crater flow-like features are the ones of most interest for brines at temperatures within the range of habitability for Earth life (life based on novel biochemistry based on perchlorates or hydrogen peroxide in the place of the chloride salts of Earth life might tolerate or prefer lower temperatures[8].).

Southern hemisphere flow-like features[edit | hide all | hide | edit source]

The process starts with the dark dune spots which form in early spring. Here are some examples in Richardson Crater (Wikipedia) in the Martian southern hemisphere- one of the places where the Flow Like Features (FLFs) have been observed.

Dark dune spots in Richardson crater

These are thought to result from the Martian Geysers.

Artist's impression of Geysers on Mars

The idea is that a semi-transparent solid such as dry ice or clear ice acts like a greenhouse to warm up a layer below the surface (the "solid state greenhouse effect"). When this lower layer consists of dry ice, then it turns into gas and as the pressure builds up, eventually escapes to the surface explosively as a Martian Geyser.

The debris from these geysers form the dark spots, and the "flow like features".

Then, as local summer approaches, the flow like features start to extend down the slope. These are small features only a few tens of meters in scale, and grow at a rate of a meter or a few meters per Martian sol through the late Martian spring and summer. This is the part of the process that is thought to be due to liquid water, in nearly all the models proposed for them so far.[2][9]

A different mechanism is proposed for them in the Northern and in the Southern hemispheres.

Solid state greenhouse effect model[edit | hide | edit source]

Möhlmann uses a solid state greenhouse effect in his model, similarly to the process that forms the geysers, but with translucent ice or snow-ice packs, rather than dry ice as the solid state greenhouse layer.[10]

Blue wall of an Iceberg on Jökulsárlón, Iceland. On the Earth, Blue ice like this forms as a result of air bubbles squeezed out of glacier ice. This has the right optical and thermal properties to act as a solid state greenhouse, trapping a layer of liquid water that forms 0.1 to 1 meters below the surface. In Möhlmann's model, if ice with similar optical and thermal properties forms on Mars, it could form a layer of liquid water centimeters to decimeters thick, which would form 5 - 10 cm below the surface.

In his model, first the ice forms a translucent layer - then as summer approaches, the solid state greenhouse effect raises the temperature of a layer below the surface to 0 °C, so melting it. This is a process familiar on the Earth for instance in Antarctica. On Earth, in similar conditions, the surface ice remains frozen, but a layer of liquid water forms from 0.1 to 1 meters below the surface. It forms preferentially in "blue ice".[11]

On Mars, in his model, the melting layer is 5 to 10 cm below the surface. The liquid water layer starts off millimeters thick in their model, and can develop to be centimeters thick as the season progresses. The effect of the warming is cumulative over successive sols. Once formed, the liquid layer can persist overnight. Subsurface liquid water layers like this can form with surface temperatures as low as -56 °C.

If the ice covers a heat absorbing layer at the right depth, the melted layer can form more rapidly, within a single sol, and can evolve to be tens of centimeters in thickness. In their model this starts as fresh water, insulated from the surface conditions by the overlaying ice layers - and then mixes with any salts to produce salty brines which would then flow beyond the edges to form the extending dark edges of the flow like features.

Later in the year, pressure can build up and cause formation of mini water geysers which may possibly explain the "white collars" that form around the flow like features towards the end of the season - in their model this is the result of liquid water erupting in mini water geysers and then freezing as white pure water ice.[12]

This provides:

  • A way for pure water to be present on Mars, and to stay liquid under pressure, insulated from the surface conditions.
  • 5 to 10 cm below the surface, trapped by the ice above it
  • Depending on conditions, the liquid layer is at least centimeters in thickness, and could be tens of centimeters in thickness.
  • Initially of fresh water, at around 0 °C.

If salt grains are present in the ice, then this gives conditions for brines to form, which would increase the melt volume and the duration of the melting. The brines then flow down the slope and extend the dark patch formed by the debris from the Geyser, so creating the extensions of the flow like features.

They mention a couple of caveats for their model, because the surface conditions on Mars at these locations is unknown. First it requires conditions for bare and optically transparent ice fields on Mars translucent to depths of several centimeters, and it is an open question whether this can happen, but there is nothing to rule it out either. Then, the other open question is whether their assumption of low thermal conductivity of the ice, preventing escape of the heat to the surface, is valid on Mars.[10] The process works with blue ice on Earth - but we can't say yet what forms the ice actually takes in these Martian conditions.

This solid state greenhouse effect process favours equator facing slopes. Also, somewhat paradoxically, it favours higher latitudes, close to the poles, over lower latitudes, because it needs conditions where surface ice can form on Mars to thicknesses of tens of centimeters. (The examples at Richardson crater are at latitude -72°, longitude 179.4°, so only 18° from the south pole.[13]).

There is no in situ data yet for these locations, of course, to test the hypothesis. Though some of the predictions for their model could be confirmed by satellite observations.

Interfacial liquid layers model[edit | hide | edit source]

Another model for these southern hemisphere features involves ULI water (undercooled liquid water) which forms as a thin layer over surfaces and can melt at well below the usual melting point of ice. In Mohlmann's sandwich model, then the interfacial water layer forms on the surfaces of solar heated grains in the ice, which then flows together down the slope. Calculations of downward flow of water shows that several litres a day of water could be supplied to the seepage flows in this way.[1][2]

The idea then is that this ULI water would be the water source for liquid brines which then flow down the surface to form the features.

Northern Hemisphere flow like features[edit | hide | edit source]

Seasonal processes in the Northern polar dunes with Flow Like Features. Time differences between the images are 22 days and 12 days. The final picture shows a long feature that formed new between the two images, and its length is 60 meters so it grew at a rate of at least 5 meters per day.

These features form at a much lower temperature than the southern hemisphere flow like features, at -90°C average surface temperature. However these temperature measurements are made using low resolution kilometers scale pixels. The dark features are expected to be considerably warmer, and the subsurface is also expected to be heated by the solid state greenhouse effect through surface layers of dry ice (similarly to the proposed models for the Martian Geysers).

They progress through a sequence of changes, first wind blown, and then seepage features associated with the dune spots, and then finally, dark seepage features appear all along the dune crest as in this sequence. These images show the growth of the seepage features.[14]

The flow like features in the northern hemisphere polar ice cap form at average surface temperatures of around 150°K - 180°K, i.e. up to -90 °C approximately. They start as dark spots, with the flow like features 25 - 100 meters long and 2-10 meters wide emanating from the same slopes as the dark spots, thought to be wind-blown features - but then like the southern hemisphere features, they start to extend down the slopes. They do this at a rate of between 0.3 meters and 7 meters a day.[1][14]

"They show a characteristic sequence of changes: first only wind-blown features emanate from them, while later a bright circular and elevated ring forms, and dark seepage-features start from the spots. These streaks grow with a speed between 0.3 meters per day and 7 meters per day, first only from the spots, later from all along the dune crest." [14]

The seepage features first form at overall surface temperatures of 160°K (-110 °C), as measured with the low resolution TES data. However this has a resolution of 3 km across track and only 9 km along the track of the observations. Also, much of the area is still covered in dry ice at this point, and it is opaque in the thermal infrared band so the orbital photographs measure the temperature of the surface of the dry ice rather than the small area of the dark spots and streaks.

Then, as with the model for the Martian geysers, shortwave radiation can penetrate translucent CO2 ice layer, and heat the subsurface through the solid state greenhouse effect.

The models suggest that both subsurface melt water layers, and interfacial water could form with surface temperatures as low as 180°K (-90 °C). Salts in contact with them could then form liquid brines.[14][9]

An alternative mechanism for the Northern hemisphere involves dry ice and sand cascading down the slope. For details see the Dark Dune Spots section of Nilton Renno's paper[1] which also has images of the two types of feature as they progress through the season.

Earlier hypotheses[edit | hide | edit source]

DDS-MSO hypothesis.

In 2003 a team of Hungarian scientists proposed that the dark dune spots and channels may be colonies of photosynthetic Martian microorganisms, which over-winter beneath the ice cap, and as the sunlight returns to the pole during early spring, light penetrates the ice, the microorganisms photosynthesise and heat their immediate surroundings. A pocket of liquid water, which would normally evaporate instantly in the thin Martian atmosphere, is trapped around them by the overlying ice. As this ice layer thins, the microorganisms show through grey. When it has completely melted, they rapidly desiccate and turn black surrounded by a grey aureole.[5][15][16][17] The Hungarian scientists suggested that that even a complex sublimation process was insufficient to explain the formation and evolution of the dark dune spots in space and time.[18][19]

In 2001 Arthur C. Clarke speculated that this was Martian vegetation similar to banyan trees. They are now thought to be dust carried in CO2 from dry ice Martian "geysers"
Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke promoted these formations as deserving of study from an astrobiological perspective.[20][4][3]
The original lower resolution images that looked like banyan trees to Arthur C. Clarke

In 2009 a multinational European team suggested that if liquid water is present in the spiders' channels during their annual defrost cycle, the structures might provide a niche where certain microscopic life forms could have retreated and adapted while sheltered from UV solar radiation.[21] British and German teams also consider the possibility that organic matter, microbes, or even simple plants might co-exist with these inorganic formations, especially if the mechanism includes liquid water and a geothermal energy source.[22][23] However, they also remarked that the majority of geological structures may be accounted for without invoking any organic "life on Mars" hypothesis[22] (See also: Life on Mars.)

References[edit | hide | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Martínez, G. M.; Renno, N. O. (2013). "Water and Brines on Mars: Current Evidence and Implications for MSL - section 3.1.2 Dune Dark Spots and Flow-like Features". Space Science Reviews. 175 (1–4): 29–51. Bibcode:2013SSRv..175...29M. doi:10.1007/s11214-012-9956-3. ISSN 0038-6308. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Kereszturi, A., et al. "Analysis of possible interfacial water driven seepages on Mars", Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. Vol. 39. 2008.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Nicole Foulke, The Banyan trees of Mars, Popular science e-mail interview with Arthur C. Clarke, December 17, 2001
  4. 4.0 4.1 Arthur C. Clarke, speaking by teleophone for the Wernher von Braun Memorial Lecture, Smithsonian institute's National Air and Space Museum, June 6, 2001 - reported by John C. Sherwood
  5. 5.0 5.1 Gánti, Tibor; András Horváth; Szaniszló Bérczi; Albert Gesztesi; Eörs Szathmáry (12–16 March 2001). "Probable Evidences of Recent Biological Activity on Mars: Appearance and Growing of Dark Dune Spots in the South Polar Region" (PDF). 32nd Annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, Houston, Texas, abstract no.1543. Retrieved 20 November 2008. 
  6. Martínez, G. M.; Renno, N. O. (2013). "Water and Brines on Mars: Current Evidence and Implications for MSL section 2.2.2 Subsurface Melt Water". Space Science Reviews. 175 (1-4): 29–51. doi:10.1007/s11214-012-9956-3. ISSN 0038-6308. 
  7. Martínez, G. M.; Renno, N. O. (2013). "Water and Brines on Mars: Current Evidence and Implications for MSL section 2.2.1 Undercooled Liquid Interfacial Water". Space Science Reviews. 175 (1-4): 29–51. doi:10.1007/s11214-012-9956-3. ISSN 0038-6308. 
  8. Schulze-Makuch, D. and Houtkooper, J.M., 2010. A perchlorate strategy for extreme xerophilic life on Mars. EPSC Abstracts, 5, pp.EPSC2010-308.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Martínez, G. M.; Renno, N. O. (2013). "Water and Brines on Mars: Current Evidence and Implications for MSL". Space Science Reviews. 175 (1-4): 29–51. Bibcode:2013SSRv..175...29M. doi:10.1007/s11214-012-9956-3. ISSN 0038-6308. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 Möhlmann, Diedrich T.F. (2010). "Temporary liquid water in upper snow/ice sub-surfaces on Mars?". Icarus. 207 (1): 140–148. Bibcode:2010Icar..207..140M. doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2009.11.013. ISSN 0019-1035. 
  11. Nl, K., and T. SAND. "Melting, runoff and the formation of frozen lakes in a mixed snow and blue-ice field in Dronning Maud Land, Antarctica.", Journal of Glaciology, T'ol. 42, .\"0.141, 1996
  12. Melting, runoff and the formation of frozen lakes in a mixed snow and blue-ice field in Dronning Maud Land Jan Gunkar Winther, Journal of Glaciology, Vol 42, No 141, 1996
  13. Defrosting Defrosting of Richardson Dunes - HiRise data - gives the coordinates of the dune field with the Flow Like Features
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 Kereszturi, A., et al. "Indications of brine related local seepage phenomena on the northern hemisphere of Mars." Icarus 207.1 (2010): 149-164.
  15. Pócs, T.; A. Horváth; T. Gánti; Sz. Bérczi; E. Szathmáry (2003). ESA SP-545 - Possible crypto-biotic-crust on Mars? (PDF). European Space Agency. Retrieved 24 November 2008. 
  16. Gánti, Tibor; András Horváth; Szaniszló Bérczi; Albert Gesztesi; Eörs Szathmáry (31 October 2003). "Dark Dune Spots: Possible Biomarkers on Mars?". Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres. 33 (s 4–5): 515–557. doi:10.1023/A:1025705828948. Retrieved 18 November 2008. 
  17. Pócs, T.; A. Horváth; T. Gánti; S. Bérczi; E. Szathmáry (27–29 October 2003). "38th Vernadsky-Brown Microsymposium on Comparative Planetology - Are the dark dune spots remnants of the crypto-biotic-crust of Mars?" (PDF). Moscow, Russia. Archived from the original (PDF) on 21 July 2011. Retrieved 7 September 2009. 
  18. A. Horváth, T. Gánti, Sz. Bérczi, A. Gesztesi, E. Szathmáry, eds. (2002). "Lunar and Planetary Science XXXIII - Morphological Analysis of the Dark Dune Spots on Mars: New Aspects in Biological Interpretation" (PDF). Retrieved 24 November 2008. 
  19. András Sik; Ákos Kereszturi. "Dark Dune Spots – Could it be that it's alive?". Monochrom. Retrieved 4 September 2009.  (Audio interview, MP3 6 min.)
  20. Orme, Greg M.; Peter K. Ness (9 June 2003). "Marsbugs" (PDF). The Electronic Astrobiology Newsletter. 10 (23): 5. Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 March 2009. Retrieved 6 September 2009. 
  21. Manrubia, S. C.; O. Prieto Ballesteros; C. González Kessler; D. Fernández Remolar; C. Córdoba-Jabonero; F. Selsis; S. Bérczi; T. Gánti; A. Horváth; A. Sik; E. Szathmáry (2004). "Comparative Analysis of Geological Features and Seasonal Processes in Inca City and PittyUSA Patera Regions on Mars" (PDF). European Space Agency Publications (ESA SP): 545. Archived from the original (PDF) on 21 July 2011. 
  22. 22.0 22.1 Ness, Peter K.; Greg M. Orme (2002). "Spider-Ravine Models and Plant-like Features on Mars – Possible Geophysical and Biogeophysical Modes of Origin" (PDF). Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (JBIS). 55: 85–108. Retrieved 3 September 2009. 
  23. Möhlmann, Diedrich T.F. (13 November 2009). "Temporary liquid water in upper snow/ice sub-surfaces on Mars?". Icarus. 207: 140. Bibcode:2010Icar..207..140M. doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2009.11.013. 


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