Contact: Janet Kerlin


Brown University

Brown geologist finds evidence supporting ancient ocean on Mars

In an article to be published in Science magazine Dec. 10, 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 with the information they used 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 esti-mates 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

Head’s team concludes that further tests are necessary, including analysis from 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.