Ancient Mars - Renderings Show
Raging Floods, Vast Oceans

By Robert Roy Britt
Senior Science Writer

With a host of spacecraft at Mars or being readied to go there over the next two years, scientists are poised to uncover the planet's liquid secrets. The big question: Was Mars once warm and wet?

Simple to pose, but not easy to answer. While many scientists think Mars may once have harbored vast oceans or lakes, there is no proof beyond some presumed ancient shorelines, sediment deposits, and other highly sketchy data or pictures.

The question is important because liquid water is a key ingredient for life as we know it.

While evidence is rolling in from two spacecraft currently orbiting Mars, an artist has taken some liberties with some of that data to create a series of renderings showing what Mars might once have looked like.

Add water, stir in color

Using topographical data from the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) instrument on NASA Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft, Kees Veenenbos of the Netherlands has created scenes showing how Mars might look today. Putting his imagination to what might have been, he added water, stirred in a little color, and produced dozens of intriguing images.

The renderings are purely educated guesses, but they are nonetheless compelling glimpses into what many scientists agree may once have been a much more Earth-like planet.

"My visualizations show how Mars may have looked billions of years ago, so they are speculative in a way," Veenenbos told "Once Mars is explored thoroughly through the next century we will know better how Mars evolved from the birth of our solar system and what Mars might have once looked like."

The artist also points out that while he added water to represent scenarios from 3 or 4 billion years ago, the renderings represent modern-day topography. Without question, the mountains and valleys of Mars' remote past would have been much different.

The data

The raw MOLA data are measurements of elevation, resolving features down to about 600 meters in size. The data do not reveal individual rocks, nor do they show the position of the Sun. NASA makes the data available for scientific and artistic endeavors, but lays no claim to the accuracy of the results.

Veenenbos converted the data into a useable format and fed it into a software program called Terragen, which generates the landscapes.

Because no one knows what Mars was really like, Veenenbos rendered several scenes -- some with water, some with ice, some depicting a warm and dry surface. In some of the renderings, he included colors such as green, purple and yellow to represent life.

We asked the artist to imagine standing on the surface of Mars a few billion years ago and tell us what he sees.

"Yesterday the Kasei River meandered calmly through the valley," Veenenbos reports. "But today an exciting catastrophic event takes place near the outlets. I stand on the steep-walled canyon of the Kasei Valles and look down 1 mile. Vast, muddy floods of water caused by groundwater eruptions in the Tharsis Montes region flow into the basin of the Chryse Planitia. I guess that the quantity of the floods exceed 10,000 times that of the Mississippi River."

Mars, if wet, was probably also rather violent. Scientists have suggested that floods likely came in chaotic episodes separated by thousands of years of relative quietude.

The real Mars

Not gifted with such artistic hindsight, geologists are meanwhile forced to craft a scientific vision of ancient Mars based on scraps of data that build up over years and each successive mission to the Red Planet.

Mars Odyssey, which arrived at Mars Oct. 23 and has yet to officially begin its science mission, has already made a contribution to the effort.

In late December, scientists studying data sent back by Odyssey said they had found tantalizing evidence that there might be water ice very near the surface of Mars in regions south of the permanently frozen north polar ice cap.

Further investigation early this new year may confirm the exciting but sketchy data, which is based on signs of hydrogen. Hydrogen is one component of water but also exists alone and in other substances.

"While preliminary, the results are believable and probably correct," says Bruce Jakosky, an expert on Mars geology from the University of Colorado. "At first glance, they appear to confirm theoretical predictions regarding the distribution of near-surface ground ice."

Life on Mars?

Jakosky, who is director of the university's Center for Astrobiology, cautions that the frozen water, if it exists, "probably does not have anything to do with liquid water." Nor is it likely to increase the odds of finding life on Mars, he says.

For life, liquid water is needed, most researchers agree. Odyssey may find that, too.

When the orbiting space probe's science mission begins in earnest sometime in February, its neutron spectrometer will be used to map near-surface water ice planet-wide. It will also use an infrared camera to search for signs of liquid water hidden in underground reservoirs.

Such reservoirs could be remnants of the oceans and lakes Kees Veenenbos has envisioned. [See the renderings]

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