Distributed December 9, 1999
For Immediate Release
News Service Contact: Janet Kerlin

Brown geologist finds evidence supporting ancient ocean on Mars

James Head, a Brown University planetary geologist, is the lead investigator on a team of scientists that has found evidence supporting the presence of an ancient ocean on Mars. The team received topographical data from the unmanned Mars Global Surveyor that they say is consistent with a former ocean. Editors: Color images are available through the News Service.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — In an article to be published in Science magazine Dec. 10, 1999, Brown University planetary geologist James Head and five colleagues present topographical measurements which they say are consistent with an ocean that dried up hundreds of millions of years ago. The measurements were taken by the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter, an instrument aboard the unmanned spacecraft Mars Global Surveyor which is circling the planet.

Head’s team set out to test the hypotheses of scientists who suggested the possibility of oceans on Mars in 1989 and 1991. The team used data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter, which beamed a pulsing laser to Mars’ surface. Scientists measured the time it took for the laser to return to the satellite; the laser traveled a shorter length of time from mountain peaks and longer from craters. MOLA is the first instrument to provide scientists the information required to construct a topographic map of the entire surface of the planet.

For years, scientists have known about channels in which water once flowed into the northern lowlands on the surface of Mars. “The question is whether it collected in large standing bodies,” Head said. “This is the first time we could get instruments to comprehensively test these ideas.”

According to Head, the team has found four types of quantitative evidence that points to the possible ancient ocean:

  • The elevation of a particular contact (the border between two geological units, such as where one type of surface meets another) is nearly a level surface, which might indicate an ancient shoreline.

  • The topography is smoother below this possible ancient shoreline than above it, consistent with smoothing by sedimentation.

  • The volume of the area below this possible shoreline is within the range of previous estimates of water on Mars.

  • A series of terraces exists parallel to the possible shoreline, consistent with the possibility of receding shorelines.

The results “should make all of us think more seriously about the possibility of the presence of large-scale standing bodies of water on Mars, big lakes and oceans,” Head said. “We can’t think of anything else to explain these things. They merit much closer scrutiny.”

Head’s team concludes that further tests are necessary, including analysis of meteorites from Mars and of landing sites, checking for the presence of salts that may be related to former oceans.

The importance of determining whether there were ancient oceans – and life – on Mars is that scientists may be able to learn more about long-term climate change and why climate changed on Mars, which has relevance to the future of the Earth, Head said.

Head is available for interviews at (401) 863-2526.


99-060g: color images, available through the News Service