Published: Fri, July 13, 2018
Research | By Jody Lindsey

NASA Probe May Have Burnt Organic Molecules On Mars 40 Years Ago

These "ghost dunes" remain preserved due to their composition.

Well, as you undoubtedly know by now, the surface of the Red Planet is punctuated by sand dunes.

But they apparently burned up the evidence and it took another 40 years before more evidence was found, the report maintained.

In the planet's ancient past, some of these dunes were overflown with lava, which caked their lower contours, solidifying into some sort of a cast that encased the ancient material within the sand dunes. Over time, winds blew sand away from the tops and the inside leaving an empty shell known as a "ghost dune", according to the AGU blog.

Planetary geomorphologist MacKenzie Day, from the University of Washington, said it was a "better place than average to look" for ancient life. "So just the shape and size tell us that these are features that are coming from an ancient dune system", said Mackenzie Day, first author of the paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research Planets.

The phenomenal structures have been seen on Earth and in satellite images of various regions on Mars: the Hellas basin and Noctis Labyrinthus.

By comparing these ghost dunes to existing Martian ones, the researchers were also able to size them up.

As Tech Times points out, when the landers relayed their readings back to Earth they were devoid of evidence of organic life.

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The two researchers estimate that the ghost dunes at Noctis Labyrinthus were about 40 meters (130 feet) high when they were first buried under the lava streams, while the ones at the Hellas basin stood nearly twice as tall. The average dune likely stood roughly 130 feet and 246 feet tall. This particular shape indicates that the dunes were "barchan dunes", which form on flat surfaces in unidirectional winds.

This view from the Viking 2 shows Utopia Planitia on Mars in 1976.

The reason why this is relevant is because the ghost dune pits may actually be lined with ancient dune sandstones, which could have encapsulated traces of past microbial life.

"We know that dunes on Earth can support life", said Day, pointing out that the sand dunes on Mars are very similar to the ones found back home.

The first ghost dunes were discovered by David Gaylord in 2015 on Idaho's eastern Snake River Plain (111 degrees 36 minutes 11.06 seconds latitude and 44 degrees 4 minutes 54.2 seconds north longitude).

They were first uncovered in 2016, but now a study has finally reported on the extraordinary phenomenon.

In addition to providing a useful target in the hunt for signatures of ancient life, the dunes may also help to shape our understanding of what Martian winds were like in the past. Once there, the landers were created to analyze the planet's soil and, ideally, discover organic remains that pointed to the presence of life long ago.

Ms Day added: "There is probably nothing living there now".

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