LEWISBURG, Pa. - Research by two Bucknell geology professors may lead to the next logical step among NASA scientists in their quest to locate liquid water on Mars, a discovery that could eventually answer the age-old question that has been the driving force behind the Mars missions since the 1970s: Is there life on the red planet?
R. Craig Kochel, professor of geology, and Jeff Trop, associate professor of geology, spent a week this past summer in the remote Wrangell mountain range of South Central Alaska and will be presenting their findings at this month’s Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston — revealing their notion that the icy debris and avalanche deposits they observed in Alaska may be "significant analogs for processes active today and in the past history of the formation of gullies and evolution of hill slopes of Mars."
Neither Kochel nor Trop are strangers to Mars research.
Kochel started studying Mars in the mid-1970s when he was a graduate student at the University of Texas.
"All of the Mars missions have been focusing on following the water," Kochel said. "The theory being, if we can find water, it significantly increases the chances that we might find some kind of life on Mars. Because on Earth, where we find water, we find life."
Evidence of water
For years, scientists have gathered evidence that water had flowed earlier in Mars’ history.
But this past December, photographic images of Mars taken by the Mars Global Surveyor fueled speculation among scientists that there is now evidence of recent flows on the planet. Those "startling" images of deposits formed in Martian gullies during the past seven years suggest that liquid water exists on Mars today.
"That was exciting, breaking news," Kochel said, "and it just happened to coincide with a study Jeff and I had already conducted over the summer."
Trop has a vast knowledge of Alaska and sedimentology. During a past field trip to the region, a Bucknell geology student took a picture of a spot in the mountain range.
"Jeff showed me the picture of geological structures that looked like they were built of a combination of avalanches, of snow, ice, and debris flow. Immediately, this reminded me of the processes we may be seeing on Mars today," said Kochel. "That’s when we took the trip this summer to observe the area first hand."
"When the latest space images were published in December, we saw striking similarities between the gullies on Mars and what we had observed in Alaska," said Trop.
Evidence of liquid
Bottom line, agreed Kochel and Trop, is that given all they've observed in Alaska and seen of Mars, it would be hard to argue that these similar geologic formations were not produced by something with liquid.
"Maybe not pure water," Kochel said, "but perhaps mixtures of mud, water, and ice."
Recent debris flow on Mars. Photo from NASA/Malin Space Science Systems.
Posted March 7, 2007