Dr Enrst Hauber, of the German Aerospace Centre, delivered a keynote public seminar for the UCD Earth Institute on 26th May at the Royal Irish Academy. His aim was to highlight the importance of space exploration in understanding climate change processes, specifically on the planet Mars. Coming from the Institute for Planetary Research under the umbrella organization of the German Aerospace Centre, Hauber identified the number of ways in which Mars as a planet was very similar to Earth before going on to explore the terrestrial features that would seem to indicate that Mars has undergone climate change over the billions of years since its formation, but also in the comparatively recent past.
Ancient valley networks and abundant hydrated alteration minerals networks show that there must have been a time more than 3.5 billion years ago when the surface of Mars was much wetter and perhaps warmer than now. Understanding what caused the dramatic transition to the cold desert planet of today is one of the most important questions in current Mars research, and is intimately connected to the question whether Mars was once habitable or not. But even in the most recent history of Mars, just within the last few hundred thousand or millions of years, there may have been changes in the Martian climate: Some very young landforms strongly suggest that some liquid water was involved in their formation, yet pure water is it physically not stable under current conditions.
Ernst Hauber used research findings from analogue sites on Earth to suggest reasons for these changes. Svalbard in the Arctic Circle, for example, has terrestrial features very similar to those observed on Mars, and so can offer some hypotheses on how landscape evolved in response to shifting climatic conditions. Ultimately, however, only spacecraft missions with the eventual goal of returning Mars samples to Earth will enable scientists to collect the data required for reliable models. Hauber is particularly interested in the planned 2018 launch of ExoMars, the next generation Mars Rover, which may help advance research on this topic. For now, Hauber believes that what we can see on the surface of Mars is sufficient to accept that the planet was once habitable, although he himself stops short of believed it was actually inhabited!