The Martian surface is covered in glass and could show signs of past life

9 Jun 2015

The impact glass (in green) preserved in Martian craters, including Alga Crater, shown here. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHUAPL/Univ. of Arizona

Across the surface of Mars, areas of the planet’s surface are covered in glass after dozens of meteor impacts over millions of years and, according to NASA scientists, could show evidence of past life on the Red Planet.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) made the discovery of these large deposits of glass near the Alga Crater with the help of data obtained with its instrument called the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM).

One of the craters found to contain glass is called Hargraves, near the Nili Fossae trough.

Almost 650km in length, the depression stretches across the Martian surface and is one of the possible landing sites for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, which will be looking to cache soil and rock samples to bring back to Earth.

While the images released by NASA are impressive for their colour coding, the team analysing the images are perhaps more excited for the growing evidence that, just like here on Earth, natural glass could be a fantastic preservation phenomenon that could show examples of life once existing on the Martian surface.

Possible site of Martian glass

A possible Martian site (white circle) is the Nili Fossae trough. The blue-tinted Hargraves crater at the right (blue indicates a low topography) is known to contain impact glass. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University

Glass half full … of life (maybe)

This evidence is based of a 2014 study, which was led by scientist Peter Schultz of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, that found organic molecules and plant matter entombed in glass formed by an impact that occurred millions of years ago in Argentina.

Schultz and his team had suggested that similar processes might preserve signs of life on Mars if they were present at the time of an impact, and now that theory could one day be proven true with future tests.

These recent geological surveys were conducted by Brown researchers Kevin Cannon and Jack Mustard, who say that glass deposits exist in several craters on Mars at least, but stressed that they were difficult to find using orbital imagery equipment.

Looking to the future, the director of NASA’s planetary science division, Jim Green, said of the findings: “The researchers’ analysis suggests glass deposits are relatively common impact features on Mars. These areas could be targets for future exploration as our robotic scientific explorers pave the way on the journey to Mars with humans in the 2030s.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic