Black Holes Stunt Growth Of Dwarf Galaxies


Astronomers at the University of California, Riverside, have discovered that powerful winds driven by supermassive black holes in the centers of dwarf galaxies have a significant impact on the evolution of these galaxies by suppressing star formation.

Dwarf galaxies are small galaxies that contain between 100 million to a few billion stars. In contrast, the Milky Way has 200-400 billion stars. Dwarf galaxies are the most abundant galaxy type in the universe and often orbit larger galaxies.

The team of three astronomers was surprised by the strength of the detected winds.

“We expected we would need observations with much higher resolution and sensitivity, and we had planned on obtaining these as a follow-up to our initial observations,” said Gabriela Canalizo, a professor of physics and astronomy at UC Riverside, who led the research team. “But we could see the signs strongly and clearly in the initial observations. The winds were stronger than we had anticipated.”

Canalizo explained that astronomers have suspected for the past couple of decades that supermassive black holes at the centers of large galaxies can have a profound influence on the way large galaxies grow and age.

“Our findings now indicate that their effect can be just as dramatic, if not more dramatic, in dwarf galaxies in the universe,” she said.

Study results appear in The Astrophysical Journal.

The researchers, who also include Laura V. Sales, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy; and Christina M. Manzano-King, a doctoral student in Canalizo’s lab, used a portion of the data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which maps more than 35% of the sky, to identify 50 dwarf galaxies, 29 of which showed signs of being associated with black holes in their centers. Six of these 29 galaxies showed evidence of winds — specifically, high-velocity ionized gas outflows — emanating from their active black holes.

“Using the Keck telescopes in Hawaii, we were able to not only detect, but also measure specific properties of these winds, such as their kinematics, distribution, and power source — the first time this has been done,” Canalizo said. “We found some evidence that these winds may be changing the rate at which the galaxies are able to form stars.”

Manzano-King, the first author of the research paper, explained that many unanswered questions about galaxy evolution can be understood by studying dwarf galaxies.

“Larger galaxies often form when dwarf galaxies merge together,” she said. “Dwarf galaxies are, therefore, useful in understanding how galaxies evolve. Dwarf galaxies are small because after they formed, they somehow avoided merging with other galaxies. Thus, they serve as fossils by revealing what the environment of the early universe was like. Dwarf galaxies are the smallest galaxies in which we are directly seeing winds — gas flows up to 1,000 kilometers per second — for the first time.”

Manzano-King explained that as material falls into a black hole, it heats up due to friction and strong gravitational fields and releases radiative energy. This energy pushes ambient gas outward from the center of the galaxy into intergalactic space.

“What’s interesting is that these winds are being pushed out by active black holes in the six dwarf galaxies rather than by stellar processes such as supernovae,” she said. “Typically, winds driven by stellar processes are common in dwarf galaxies and constitute the dominant process for regulating the amount of gas available in dwarf galaxies for forming stars.”

Astronomers suspect that when wind emanating from a black hole is pushed out, it compresses the gas ahead of the wind, which can increase star formation. But if all the wind gets expelled from the galaxy’s center, gas becomes unavailable and star formation could decrease. The latter appears to be what is occurring in the six dwarf galaxies the researchers identified.

“In these six cases, the wind has a negative impact on star formation,” Sales said. “Theoretical models for the formation and evolution of galaxies have not included the impact of black holes in dwarf galaxies. We are seeing evidence, however, of a suppression of star formation in these galaxies. Our findings show that galaxy formation models must include black holes as important, if not dominant, regulators of star formation in dwarf galaxies.”

Next, the researchers plan to study the mass and momentum of gas outflows in dwarf galaxies.

“This would better inform theorists who rely on such data to build models,” Manzano-King said. “These models, in turn, teach observational astronomers just how the winds affect dwarf galaxies. We also plan to do a systematic search in a larger sample of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to identify dwarf galaxies with outflows originating in active black holes.”

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Hellman Foundation. Data was obtained at the W. M. Keck Observatory, and made possible by financial support from the W. M. Keck Foundation.

Putting The ‘Bang’ In The Big Bang


As the Big Bang theory goes, somewhere around 13.8 billion years ago the universe exploded into being, as an infinitely small, compact fireball of matter that cooled as it expanded, triggering reactions that cooked up the first stars and galaxies, and all the forms of matter that we see (and are) today.

Just before the Big Bang launched the universe onto its ever-expanding course, physicists believe, there was another, more explosive phase of the early universe at play: cosmic inflation, which lasted less than a trillionth of a second. During this period, matter — a cold, homogeneous goop — inflated exponentially quickly before processes of the Big Bang took over to more slowly expand and diversify the infant universe.

Recent observations have independently supported theories for both the Big Bang and cosmic inflation. But the two processes are so radically different from each other that scientists have struggled to conceive of how one followed the other.

Now physicists at MIT, Kenyon College, and elsewhere have simulated in detail an intermediary phase of the early universe that may have bridged cosmic inflation with the Big Bang. This phase, known as “reheating,” occurred at the end of cosmic inflation and involved processes that wrestled inflation’s cold, uniform matter into the ultrahot, complex soup that was in place at the start of the Big Bang.

“The postinflation reheating period sets up the conditions for the Big Bang, and in some sense puts the ‘bang’ in the Big Bang,” says David Kaiser, the Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science and professor of physics at MIT. “It’s this bridge period where all hell breaks loose and matter behaves in anything but a simple way.”

Kaiser and his colleagues simulated in detail how multiple forms of matter would have interacted during this chaotic period at the end of inflation. Their simulations show that the extreme energy that drove inflation could have been redistributed just as quickly, within an even smaller fraction of a second, and in a way that produced conditions that would have been required for the start of the Big Bang.

The team found this extreme transformation would have been even faster and more efficient if quantum effects modified the way that matter responded to gravity at very high energies, deviating from the way Einstein’s theory of general relativity predicts matter and gravity should interact.

“This enables us to tell an unbroken story, from inflation to the postinflation period, to the Big Bang and beyond,” Kaiser says. “We can trace a continuous set of processes, all with known physics, to say this is one plausible way in which the universe came to look the way we see it today.”

The team’s results appear today in Physical Review Letters. Kaiser’s co-authors are lead author Rachel Nguyen, and John T. Giblin, both of Kenyon College, and former MIT graduate student Evangelos Sfakianakis and Jorinde van de Vis, both of Leiden University in the Netherlands.

“In sync with itself”

The theory of cosmic inflation, first proposed in the 1980s by MIT’s Alan Guth, the V.F. Weisskopf Professor of Physics, predicts that the universe began as an extremely small speck of matter, possibly about a hundred-billionth the size of a proton. This speck was filled with ultra-high-energy matter, so energetic that the pressures within generated a repulsive gravitational force — the driving force behind inflation. Like a spark to a fuse, this gravitational force exploded the infant universe outward, at an ever-faster rate, inflating it to nearly an octillion times its original size (that’s the number 1 followed by 26 zeroes), in less than a trillionth of a second.

Kaiser and his colleagues attempted to work out what the earliest phases of reheating — that bridge interval at the end of cosmic inflation and just before the Big Bang — might have looked like.

“The earliest phases of reheating should be marked by resonances. One form of high-energy matter dominates, and it’s shaking back and forth in sync with itself across large expanses of space, leading to explosive production of new particles,” Kaiser says. “That behavior won’t last forever, and once it starts transferring energy to a second form of matter, its own swings will get more choppy and uneven across space. We wanted to measure how long it would take for that resonant effect to break up, and for the produced particles to scatter off each other and come to some sort of thermal equilibrium, reminiscent of Big Bang conditions.”

The team’s computer simulations represent a large lattice onto which they mapped multiple forms of matter and tracked how their energy and distribution changed in space and over time as the scientists varied certain conditions. The simulation’s initial conditions were based on a particular inflationary model — a set of predictions for how the early universe’s distribution of matter may have behaved during cosmic inflation.

The scientists chose this particular model of inflation over others because its predictions closely match high-precision measurements of the cosmic microwave background — a remnant glow of radiation emitted just 380,000 years after the Big Bang, which is thought to contain traces of the inflationary period.

A universal tweak

The simulation tracked the behavior of two types of matter that may have been dominant during inflation, very similar to a type of particle, the Higgs boson, that was recently observed in other experiments.

Before running their simulations, the team added a slight “tweak” to the model’s description of gravity. While ordinary matter that we see today responds to gravity just as Einstein predicted in his theory of general relativity, matter at much higher energies, such as what’s thought to have existed during cosmic inflation, should behave slightly differently, interacting with gravity in ways that are modified by quantum mechanics, or interactions at the atomic scale.

In Einstein’s theory of general relativity, the strength of gravity is represented as a constant, with what physicists refer to as a minimal coupling, meaning that, no matter the energy of a particular particle, it will respond to gravitational effects with a strength set by a universal constant.

However, at the very high energies that are predicted in cosmic inflation, matter interacts with gravity in a slightly more complicated way. Quantum-mechanical effects predict that the strength of gravity can vary in space and time when interacting with ultra-high-energy matter — a phenomenon known as nonminimal coupling.

Kaiser and his colleagues incorporated a nonminimal coupling term to their inflationary model and observed how the distribution of matter and energy changed as they turned this quantum effect up or down.

In the end they found that the stronger the quantum-modified gravitational effect was in affecting matter, the faster the universe transitioned from the cold, homogeneous matter in inflation to the much hotter, diverse forms of matter that are characteristic of the Big Bang.

By tuning this quantum effect, they could make this crucial transition take place over 2 to 3 “e-folds,” referring to the amount of time it takes for the universe to (roughly) triple in size. In this case, they managed to simulate the reheating phase within the time it takes for the universe to triple in size two to three times. By comparison, inflation itself took place over about 60 e-folds.

“Reheating was an insane time, when everything went haywire,” Kaiser says. “We show that matter was interacting so strongly at that time that it could relax correspondingly quickly as well, beautifully setting the stage for the Big Bang. We didn’t know that to be the case, but that’s what’s emerging from these simulations, all with known physics. That’s what’s exciting for us.”

This research was supported, in part, by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.

ESO Telescope Reveals What Could Be The Smallest Dwarf Planet Yet In The Solar System


Astronomers using ESO’s SPHERE instrument at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) have revealed that the asteroid Hygiea could be classified as a dwarf planet. The object is the fourth largest in the asteroid belt after Ceres, Vesta and Pallas. For the first time, astronomers have observed Hygiea in sufficiently high resolution to study its surface and determine its shape and size. They found that Hygiea is spherical, potentially taking the crown from Ceres as the smallest dwarf planet in the Solar System.


As an object in the main asteroid belt, Hygiea satisfies right away three of the four requirements to be classified as a dwarf planet: it orbits around the Sun, it is not a moon and, unlike a planet, it has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit. The final requirement is that it has enough mass for its own gravity to pull it into a roughly spherical shape. This is what VLT observations have now revealed about Hygiea.

“Thanks to the unique capability of the SPHERE instrument on the VLT, which is one of the most powerful imaging systems in the world, we could resolve Hygiea’s shape, which turns out to be nearly spherical,” says lead researcher Pierre Vernazza from the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille in France. “Thanks to these images, Hygiea may be reclassified as a dwarf planet, so far the smallest in the Solar System.”

The team also used the SPHERE observations to constrain Hygiea’s size, putting its diameter at just over 430 km. Pluto, the most famous of dwarf planets, has a diameter close to 2400 km, while Ceres is close to 950 km in size.

Surprisingly, the observations also revealed that Hygiea lacks the very large impact crater that scientists expected to see on its surface, the team report in the study published today in Nature Astronomy. Hygiea is the main member of one of the largest asteroid families, with close to 7000 members that all originated from the same parent body. Astronomers expected the event that led to the formation of this numerous family to have left a large, deep mark on Hygiea.

“This result came as a real surprise as we were expecting the presence of a large impact basin, as is the case on Vesta,” says Vernazza. Although the astronomers observed Hygiea’s surface with a 95% coverage, they could only identify two unambiguous craters. “Neither of these two craters could have been caused by the impact that originated the Hygiea family of asteroids whose volume is comparable to that of a 100 km-sized object. They are too small,” explains study co-author Miroslav Bro? of the Astronomical Institute of Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic.

The team decided to investigate further. Using numerical simulations, they deduced that Hygiea’s spherical shape and large family of asteroids are likely the result of a major head-on collision with a large projectile of diameter between 75 and 150 km. Their simulations show this violent impact, thought to have occurred about 2 billion years ago, completely shattered the parent body. Once the left-over pieces reassembled, they gave Hygiea its round shape and thousands of companion asteroids. “Such a collision between two large bodies in the asteroid belt is unique in the last 3-4 billion years,” says Pavel Ševe?ek, a PhD student at the Astronomical Institute of Charles University who also participated in the study.

Studying asteroids in detail has been possible thanks not only to advances in numerical computation, but also to more powerful telescopes. “Thanks to the VLT and the new generation adaptive-optics instrument SPHERE, we are now imaging main belt asteroids with unprecedented resolution, closing the gap between Earth-based and interplanetary mission observations,” Vernazza concludes.

Astronomers Catch Wind Rushing Out Of Galaxy


Exploring the influence of galactic winds from a distant galaxy called Makani, UC San Diego’s Alison Coil, Rhodes College’s David Rupke and a group of collaborators from around the world made a novel discovery. Published in Nature, their study’s findings provide direct evidence for the first time of the role of galactic winds — ejections of gas from galaxies — in creating the circumgalactic medium (CGM). It exists in the regions around galaxies, and it plays an active role in their cosmic evolution. The unique composition of Makani — meaning wind in Hawaiian — uniquely lent itself to the breakthrough findings.

“Makani is not a typical galaxy,” noted Coil, a physics professor at UC San Diego. “It’s what’s known as a late-stage major merger — two recently combined similarly massive galaxies, which came together because of the gravitational pull each felt from the other as they drew nearer. Galaxy mergers often lead to starburst events, when a substantial amount of gas present in the merging galaxies is compressed, resulting in a burst of new star births. Those new stars, in the case of Makani, likely caused the huge outflows — either in stellar winds or at the end of their lives when they exploded as supernovae.”

Coil explained that most of the gas in the universe inexplicably appears in the regions surrounding galaxies — not in the galaxies. Typically, when astronomers observe a galaxy, they are not witnessing it undergoing dramatic events — big mergers, the rearrangement of stars, the creation of multiple stars or driving huge, fast winds.

“While these events may occur at some point in a galaxy’s life, they’d be relatively brief,” noted Coil. “Here, we’re actually catching it all right as it’s happening through these huge outflows of gas and dust.”

Coil and Rupke, the paper’s first author, used data collected from the W. M. Keck Observatory’s new Keck Cosmic Web Imager (KCWI) instrument, combined with images from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), to draw their conclusions. The KCWI data provided what the researchers call the “stunning detection” of the ionized oxygen gas to extremely large scales, well beyond the stars in the galaxy. It allowed them to distinguish a fast gaseous outflow launched from the galaxy a few million year ago, from a gas outflow launched hundreds of millions of years earlier that has since slowed significantly.

“The earlier outflow has flowed to large distances from the galaxy, while the fast, recent outflow has not had time to do so,” summarized Rupke, associate professor of physics at Rhodes College.

From the Hubble, the researchers procured images of Makani’s stars, showing it to be a massive, compact galaxy that resulted from a merger of two once separate galaxies. From ALMA, they could see that the outflow contains molecules as well as atoms. The data sets indicated that with a mixed population of old, middle-age and young stars, the galaxy might also contain a dust-obscured accreting supermassive black hole. This suggests to the scientists that Makani’s properties and timescales are consistent with theoretical models of galactic winds.

“In terms of both their size and speed of travel, the two outflows are consistent with their creation by these past starburst events; they’re also consistent with theoretical models of how large and fast winds should be if created by starbursts. So observations and theory are agreeing well here,” noted Coil.

Rupke noticed that the hourglass shape of Makani’s nebula is strongly reminiscent of similar galactic winds in other galaxies, but that Makani’s wind is much larger than in other observed galaxies.

“This means that we can confirm it’s actually moving gas from the galaxy into the circumgalactic regions around it, as well as sweeping up more gas from its surroundings as it moves out,” Rupke explained. “And it’s moving a lot of it — at least one to 10 percent of the visible mass of the entire galaxy — at very high speeds, thousands of kilometers per second.”

Rupke also noted that while astronomers are converging on the idea that galactic winds are important for feeding the CGM, most of the evidence has come from theoretical models or observations that don’t encompass the entire galaxy.

“Here we have the whole spatial picture for one galaxy, which is a remarkable illustration of what people expected,” he said. “Makani’s existence provides one of the first direct windows into how a galaxy contributes to the ongoing formation and chemical enrichment of its CGM.”

This study was supported by the National Science Foundation (collaborative grant AST-1814233, 1813365, 1814159 and 1813702), NASA (award SOF-06-0191, issued by USRA), Rhodes College and the Royal Society.

Scientists May Have Discovered Whole New Class Of Black Holes


Black holes are an important part of how astrophysicists make sense of the universe — so important that scientists have been trying to build a census of all the black holes in the Milky Way galaxy.

But new research shows that their search might have been missing an entire class of black holes that they didn’t know existed.

In a study published today in the journal Science, astronomers offer a new way to search for black holes, and show that it is possible there is a class of black holes smaller than the smallest known black holes in the universe.

“We’re showing this hint that there is another population out there that we have yet to really probe in the search for black holes,” said Todd Thompson, a professor of astronomy at The Ohio State University and lead author of the study.

“People are trying to understand supernova explosions, how supermassive black stars explode, how the elements were formed in supermassive stars. So if we could reveal a new population of black holes, it would tell us more about which stars explode, which don’t, which form black holes, which form neutron stars. It opens up a new area of study.”

Imagine a census of a city that only counted people 5’9″ and taller — and imagine that the census takers didn’t even know that people shorter than 5’9″ existed. Data from that census would be incomplete, providing an inaccurate picture of the population. That is essentially what has been happening in the search for black holes, Thompson said.

Astronomers have long been searching for black holes, which have gravitational pulls so fierce that nothing — not matter, not radiation — can escape. Black holes form when some stars die, shrink into themselves, and explode. Astronomers have also been looking for neutron stars — small, dense stars that form when some stars die and collapse.

Both could hold interesting information about the elements on Earth and about how stars live and die. But in order to uncover that information, astronomers first have to figure out where the black holes are. And to figure out where the black holes are, they need to know what they are looking for.

One clue: Black holes often exist in something called a binary system. This simply means that two stars are close enough to one another to be locked together by gravity in a mutual orbit around one another. When one of those stars dies, the other can remain, still orbiting the space where the dead star — now a black hole or neutron star — once lived, and where a black hole or neutron star has formed.

For years, the black holes scientists knew about were all between approximately five and 15 times the mass of the sun. The known neutron stars are generally no bigger than about 2.1 times the mass of the sun — if they were above 2.5 times the sun’s mass, they would collapse to a black hole.

But in the summer of 2017, a survey called LIGO — the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory — saw two black holes merging together in a galaxy about 1.8 million light years away. One of those black holes was about 31 times the mass of the sun; the other about 25 times the mass of the sun.

“Immediately, everyone was like ‘wow,’ because it was such a spectacular thing,” Thompson said. “Not only because it proved that LIGO worked, but because the masses were huge. Black holes that size are a big deal — we hadn’t seen them before.”

Thompson and other astrophysicists had long suspected that black holes might come in sizes outside the known range, and LIGO’s discovery proved that black holes could be larger. But there remained a window of size between the biggest neutron stars and the smallest black holes.

Thompson decided to see if he could solve that mystery.

He and other scientists began combing through data from APOGEE, the Apache Point Observatory Galactic Evolution Experiment, which collected light spectra from around 100,000 stars across the Milky Way. The spectra, Thompson realized, could show whether a star might be orbiting around another object: Changes in spectra — a shift toward bluer wavelengths, for example, followed by a shift to redder wavelengths — could show that a star was orbiting an unseen companion.

Thompson began combing through the data, looking for stars that showed that change, indicating that they might be orbiting a black hole.

Then, he narrowed the APOGEE data to 200 stars that might be most interesting. He gave the data to a graduate research associate at Ohio State, Tharindu Jayasinghe, who compiled thousands of images of each potential binary system from ASAS-SN, the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae. (ASAS-SN has found some 1,000 supernovae, and is run out of Ohio State.)

Their data crunching found a giant red star that appeared to be orbiting something, but that something, based on their calculations, was likely much smaller than the known black holes in the Milky Way, but way bigger than most known neutron stars.

After more calculations and additional data from the Tillinghast Reflector Echelle Spectrograph and the Gaia satellite, they realized they had found a low-mass black hole, likely about 3.3 times the mass of the sun.

“What we’ve done here is come up with a new way to search for black holes, but we’ve also potentially identified one of the first of a new class of low-mass black holes that astronomers hadn’t previously known about.” Thompson said. “The masses of things tell us about their formation and evolution, and they tell us about their nature.”

New Measurement Of Hubble Constant Adds To Cosmic Mystery


New measurements of the rate of expansion of the universe, led by astronomers at the University of California, Davis, add to a growing mystery: Estimates of a fundamental constant made with different methods keep giving different results.

“There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of mystification and from my point of view it’s a lot of fun,” said Chris Fassnacht, professor of physics at UC Davis and a member of the international SHARP/H0LICOW collaboration, which made the measurement using the W.M. Keck telescopes in Hawaii.

A paper about the work is published by the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The Hubble constant describes the expansion of the universe, expressed in kilometers per second per megaparsec. It allows astronomers to figure out the size and age of the universe and the distances between objects.

Graduate student Geoff Chen, Fassnacht and colleagues looked at light from extremely distant galaxies that is distorted and split into multiple images by the lensing effect of galaxies (and their associated dark matter) between the source and Earth. By measuring the time delay for light to make its way by different routes through the foreground lens, the team could estimate the Hubble constant.

Using adaptive optics technology on the W.M. Keck telescopes in Hawaii, they arrived at an estimate of 76.8 kilometers per second per megaparsec. As a parsec is a bit over 30 trillion kilometers and a megaparsec is a million parsecs, that is an excruciatingly precise measurement. In 2017, the H0LICOW team published an estimate of 71.9, using the same method and data from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Hints of new physics

The new SHARP/H0LICOW estimates are comparable to that by a team led by Adam Reiss of Johns Hopkins University, 74.03, using measurements of a set of variable stars called the Cepheids. But it’s quite a lot different from estimates of the Hubble constant from an entirely different technique based on the cosmic microwave background. That method, based on the afterglow of the Big Bang, gives a Hubble constant of 67.4, assuming the standard cosmological model of the universe is correct.

An estimate by Wendy Freedman and colleagues at the University of Chicago comes close to bridging the gap, with a Hubble constant of 69.8 based on the luminosity of distant red giant stars and supernovae.

A difference of 5 or 6 kilometers per second over a distance of over 30 million trillion kilometers might not seem like a lot, but it’s posing a challenge to astronomers. It might provide a hint to a possible new physics beyond the current understanding of our universe.

On the other hand, the discrepancy could be due to some unknown bias in the methods. Some scientists had expected that the differences would disappear as estimates got better, but the difference between the Hubble constant measured from distant objects and that derived from the cosmic microwave background seems to be getting more and more robust.

“More and more scientists believe there’s a real tension here,” Chen said. “If we try to come up with a theory, it has to explain everything at once.”

Additional authors on the paper are: Sherry Suyu, Inh Jee and Simona Vegetti, Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, Garching, Germany; Cristian Rusu, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, Tokyo; James Chan, Vivien Bonvin, Martin Millon and Frederic Courbin, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Switzerland; Kenneth Wong and Alessandro Sonnenfeld, Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe, Tokyo; Matthew Auger, University of Cambridge, U.K.; Stefan Hilbert, Exzellenzcluster Universe, Garching, Germany; Simon Birrer, Xuheng Ding, Anowar Shajib and Tommaso Treu, UCLA; Leon Koopmans and John McKean, University of Groningen, the Netherlands; David Lagattuta, Centre de Recherche Astrophysique de Lyon, France; Aleksi Holkala, Tuusula, Finland; and Dominique Sluse, Leiden University, the Netherlands.

The work was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Mars Once Had Salt Lakes Similar To Those On Earth


Mars once had salt lakes that are similar to those on Earth and has gone through wet and dry periods, according to an international team of scientists that includes a Texas A&M University College of Geosciences researcher.

Marion Nachon, a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Texas A&M, and colleagues have had their work published in the current issue of Nature Geoscience.

The team examined Mars’ geological terrains from Gale Crater, an immense 95-mile-wide rocky basin that is being explored with the NASA Curiosity rover since 2012 as part of the MSL (Mars Science Laboratory) mission.

The results show that the lake that was present in Gale Crater over 3 billion years ago underwent a drying episode, potentially linked to the global drying of Mars.

Gale Crater formed about 3.6 billion years ago when a meteor hit Mars and created its large impact crater.

“Since then, its geological terrains have recorded the history of Mars, and studies have shown Gale Crater reveals signs that liquid water was present over its history, which is a key ingredient of microbial life as we know it,” Nachon said. “During these drying periods, salt ponds eventually formed. It is difficult to say exactly how large these ponds were, but the lake in Gale Crater was present for long periods of time — from at least hundreds of years to perhaps tens of thousands of years,” Nachon said.

So what happened to these salt lakes?

Nachon said that Mars probably became dryer over time, and the planet lost its planetary magnetic field, which left the atmosphere exposed to be stripped by solar wind and radiation over millions of years.

“With an atmosphere becoming thinner, the pressure at the surface became lesser, and the conditions for liquid water to be stable at the surface were not fulfilled anymore,” Nachon said. “So liquid water became unsustainable and evaporated.”

The salt ponds on Mars are believed to be similar to some found on Earth, especially those in a region called Altiplano, which is near the Bolivia-Peru border.

Nachon said the Altiplano is an arid, high-altitude plateau where rivers and streams from mountain ranges “do not flow to the sea but lead to closed basins, similar to what used to happen at Gale Crater on Mars,” she said. “This hydrology creates lakes with water levels heavily influenced by climate. During the arid periods Altiplano lakes become shallow due to evaporation, and some even dry up entirely. The fact that the Atliplano is mostly vegetation free makes the region look even more like Mars,” she said.”

Nachon added that the study shows that the ancient lake in Gale Crater underwent at least one episode of drying before “recovering.” It’s also possible that the lake was segmented into separate ponds, where some of the ponds could have undergone more evaporation.

Because up to now only one location along the rover’s path shows such a drying history, Nachon said it might give clues about how many drying episodes the lake underwent before Mars’s climate became as dry as it is currently.

“It could indicate that Mars’s climate ‘dried out’ over the long term, on a way that still allowed for the cyclical presence of a lake,” Nachon said. “These results indicate a past Mars climate that fluctuated between wetter and drier periods. They also tell us about the types of chemical elements (in this case sulphur, a key ingredient for life) that were available in the liquid water present at the surface at the time, and about the type of environmental fluctuations Mars life would have had to cope with, if it ever existed.”