US spacecraft finds Mars colder than expected

May 16th, 2008 - 12:39 pm ICT by admin  

Washington, May 16 (Xinhua) The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has announced that the crust and upper mantle of Mars are stiffer and colder than previously thought. The new observations from its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter suggest any liquid water that might exist below the planet’s surface and any possible organisms living in that water would be located deeper than scientists had suspected.

“This implies that the planet’s interior is more rigid, and thus colder, than we thought before.”

“We found that the rocky surface of Mars is not bending under the load of the north polar ice cap,” said Roger Phillips of the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado, the lead author of a new report published in the online version of Science Thursday.

The discovery was made using the Shallow Radar (SHARAD) instrument on the Orbiter, which has provided the most detailed pictures to date of the interior layers of ice, sand and dust that make up the north polar cap on Mars.

The radar pictures show a smooth, flat border between the ice cap and the rocky Martian crust. On Earth, the weight of a similar stack of ice would cause the planet’s surface to sag.

The fact that the Martian surface is not bending means that its strong outer shell, or lithosphere, a combination of its crust and upper mantle, must be very thick and cold.

“The lithosphere of a planet is the rigid part. On Earth, the lithosphere is the part that breaks during an earthquake,” said Suzanne Smrekar, deputy project scientist for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter at NASA.

“The ability of the radar to see through the ice cap and determine that there is no bending of the lithosphere gives us a good idea of present-day temperatures inside Mars for the first time.”

Temperatures in the outer portion of a rocky planet like Mars increase with depth toward the interior. The thicker the lithosphere, the more gradually the temperatures increase.

The discovery of a thicker Martian lithosphere therefore implies that any liquid water lurking in aquifers below the surface would have to be deeper than previously calculated, where temperatures are warmer.

Scientists speculate that any life on Mars associated with deep aquifers also would have to be buried deeper in the interior.

On May 25, NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander is scheduled to touch down not far from the north polar ice cap. It will further investigate the history of water on Mars, and is expected to get the first close look at ice on the Red Planet.

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