Mars-quakes May Be Caused by Auto-fracking, Scientists Suggest

ISS meanwhile comes clean about mold problem, inadvertently resurrecting the eternal question: Is there life on Mars? Maybe, but maybe we put it there

Ruth Schuster
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Image made available by NASA in 2015 shows dark streaks on Mars inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water.
Image made available by NASA in 2015 shows dark streaks on Mars inferred to have been formed by contemporary flowing water.Credit: AFP PHOTO /NASA/JPL/UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA"
Ruth Schuster

Is there life on Mars? Does the atmospheric methane "belch" observed there by NASA's Curiosity rover this week indicate that indeed, something there is alive? If there is, is it because we put it there with our imperfectly sterilized space probes? No answers here, but in any case, most biologists and exobiologists concur that if life on Mars exists, water has to be there too.

>> Read more: Everything we thought we knew about the moon is wrong ■ NASA renews search for aliens, and discoveries are expected in our lifetime

Now a new paper from the University of California at Berkeley published in the journal of the American Geophysical Union   adds to the chorus of evidence supporting liquid water somewhere on Mars. It suggests that the sheer existence of marsquakes argues that liquid groundwater exists beneath the frozen surface.

The theory is based on fracking, which is the industry of injecting hot water and chemicals under great pressure into faults in shale beds, forcing open fissures in the rock, with the aim of freeing oil and/or gas locked in the rock.

Fracking is an extremely controversial methodology, not least because it lubricates cracks in the crust and has been associated with earthquakes, some of them not small. In April 2018, South Korea was shaken by a magnitude-5.5 quake that some experts suspect (but cannot prove) was caused by fracking.  Another hitting Oklahoma that measured at 5.7 was also believed to be caused by fracking. The list is of potentially frack-caused quakes is not short.

Nobody's fracking on Mars now and nobody's ever going to (Haaretz will go out on a limb here). Never. The connection is water under extreme pressure.

Image made available by NASA in 2015 shows dark streaks flowing downhill on Mars.
Image made available by NASA in 2015 shows dark streaks flowing downhill on Mars.Credit: AFP PHOTO /NASA/JPL/UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA

This is the theory. Mars is cold, and if it has liquid groundwater in deep underground aquifers, the cold would penetrate the ground, and the upper levels of the groundwater could freeze.

The layers of ice would compress any liquid water below (because water anomalously expands when it freezes, unlike every other substance we know).

The more pressure the water comes under, the more it "aspires" to seep through cracks and faults; in turn the grains of soil become increasingly pressured. So the result is that fracking, or subterranean water under high pressure on Mars, may cause quakes.

Water, water everywhere but not a drop to see

It is not accepted dogma that Mars has any groundwater, but it's a theory that has a great deal of backing, Prof. Dan Blumberg of Ben-Gurion University told Haaretz.

In March, scientists supported by the Italian Space Agency reported detecting a deep-water lake on Mars under its southern polar ice. Also, there are a plethora of places where crater walls are marked by what looks like water flows. If once people thought they were "fossilized" marks of long-dead rivers, now there's thinking that these flow-marks are created by groundwater under great pressure bursting through, where the craters have gone deep into the crust, or where they fractured. In other words, these are signs of groundwater springs.

A separate study by the USC Arid Climate and Water Research Center calculated that Martian groundwater could be as deep as 750 meters below the surface.

Groundwater springs could be responsible for the high concentration of water vapor in the thin Martian atmosphere – and the fact that the atmosphere is leaking hydrogen, Blumberg says.

NASA image shows a view of the north polar ice cap on Mars.
NASA image shows a view of the north polar ice cap on Mars.Credit: AP Photo/HO - NASA

This May, scientists from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research reported that according to their modeling, water vapor can rise from the lower into the upper atmosphere only every two years. When it’s summer in the southern hemisphere and Mars is at its closest to the Sun, the air warms and water vapor rises with the air. However, as it goes toward the Martian north, it condenses and falls back to land – or most of it does. Some H20 molecules dissociate and hydrogen leaks away into outer space.

There is also a lot of persuasive geomorphological evidence that once, Mars was wet, Blumberg sums up.

As for marsquakes, they evidently happen: the InSight lander felt them. "Documenting (or not) tidally modulated shallow seismicity would provide evidence for (or against) water‐filled confined aquifers, that pore pressure is high, and that the state of stress is close to failure—with implications for processes that can deliver water to the Martian surface," Manga and the team wrote.

Quakes happen on the moon too. There however the theory is not that ice-packs are compressing groundwater and causing aquifers to auto-frack the planetoid. It is that the moon may not have colliding continental plates but it does have a magmatic core, and is still contracting 4.5 billion years after its creation by a horrific collision between early Earth and a rogue planet called Theia. 

Mars on the other hand does not have a molten core, not any more, planetologists are sure. Blumberg explains: If it did, it would have magnetic poles like Earth does. But it does not have an active magnetic field, all it has is traces of one long gone, if one measures at specific spots.

One last point. Like any self-respecting quake, there may be a fault and there may be fracker, but a trigger is necessary too. Manga and the team suspect the perps are tidal tugs of Mars’s moon Phobos and the Sun, as well as barometric pressure changes – which would be caused by the sun warming and cooling the thin Martian atmosphere.

Mold in space

So it looks like there's water on Mars, but the jury's out on life. NASA told Haaretz earlier this year that it has not found any sign of it.

"One of NASA’s primary goals is to detect unmistakable signs of life beyond Earth," Allard Beutel of the space agency's communications office told Haaretz in April. "We have yet to find signs of extraterrestrial life, but we remain committed to exploration of the solar system in search of these answers."

Fungi on the ISS,  growing on a panel where exercise clothes were hung to dry.
Fungi on the ISS, growing on a panel where exercise clothes were hung to dry. Credit: Science@NASA

Haaretz asked whether claimed (not proven) indications of metabolism on Mars could have resulted from imperfectly sterilized spacecraft sent to the red planet delivering microbes that somehow survived the inhospitable conditions. NASA did not answer that specifically.

But as the week rolled to a close, on Thursday Marta Cortesão of the German Aerospace Center reported that the International Space Station has a mold problem – and it seems mold spores survive perfectly well on the outside walls of the spacecraft. Okay, that isn't extraterrestrial, to put it mildly, but it's life clinging on in outer space.

"Astronauts on the ISS spend hours every week cleaning the inside of the station’s walls to prevent mold from becoming a health problem," the American Geophysical Union wrote.

There is always the possibility that if there is life on Mars, of the microbial sort, it got there as spores blown from Earth to our neighboring planet. If we get Martian meteorites, theoretically Mars could get ours, and they could be spiked.

Wait, what about that killer radiation that may be the fatal flaw foiling humankind's expansion throughout the universe?

The two most common types of mold infesting the International Space Station turn out to be Aspergillus – actually a family of around 200 molds, of which 40 make us sick as dogs, and Penicillium, another mold family of which some are our friends. All these in spore form (dormant) turn out to survive X-ray exposure at 200 times the dose that would kill a human, says Cortesão. Oh well. Mars may have water and the mold would appreciate that too.