Washington DC: Turns out, massive bombardment that occurred some four billion years ago by comets and asteroids as large as West Virginia may have made Mars more likely to support life.
Researcher Stephen Mojzsis from the University of Colorado Boulder said that if early Mars was as barren and cold as it is today, massive asteroid and comet impacts would have produced enough heat to melt subsurface ice.
The impacts would have produced regional hydrothermal systems on Mars similar to those in Yellowstone National Park, which today harbor chemically powered microbes, some of which can survive boiling in hot springs or inhabiting water acidic enough to dissolve nails.
Scientists have long known there was once running water on Mars, as evidenced by ancient river valleys, deltas and parts of lake beds, said Mojzsis. In addition to producing hydrothermal regions in portions of Mars' fractured and melted crust, a massive impact could have temporarily increased the planet's atmospheric pressure, periodically heating Mars up enough to "re-start" a dormant water cycle.
Much of the action on Mars occurred during a period known as the Late Heavy Bombardment about 3.9 billion years ago when the developing solar system was a shooting gallery of comets, asteroids, moons and planets. Unlike Earth, which has been "resurfaced" time and again by erosion and plate tectonics, heavy cratering is still evident on Mercury, Earth's moon and Mars, Mojzsis said.
Mojzsis and researcher Oleg Abramov used the Janus supercomputer cluster for some of the 3-D modeling used in the study.
The study is published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.