Watch: this is what Mars looked like 3.7 billion years ago

While it seems to be a dead planet today, in the past the Red Planet would have felt very much like home to us - with clouds, oceans and blue sky.

We are nearly as certain as it is scientifically possible to be that there isn't any life on Mars. There is still every chance that there was life at some point, and we might still find it. The landscape is clearly marked with signs of water erosions, and Curiosity and Opportunity (the two rovers currently trundling around up there) have taught us a huge deal about its geology - including the discovery of "abundant" traces of water in Martian soil. Mars clearly had a lot of liquid water on its surface at some point.

The question, though, is why it doesn't have lakes, rivers, oceans, and streams any more - and what it looked like when it did. Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center has taken a stab at visualising the Martian world of 3.7 billion years ago ahead of its Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (or Maven) mission which takes off on 18 November, producing a quite lovely animation:

It looks just like Earth because back then Mars had two Earth-like things going for it that it doesn't any more. Firstly, the habitable zone around the younger, larger Sun - that's the range of orbits around any star within which is neither too hot nor too cold for a planet to have liquid water on its surface - was further out, and secondly Mars also had a thick atmosphere. Without the pressure that comes with an atmosphere, liquid water will either freeze solid or evaporate instantly, as happens currently on Mars.

The habitable zone moving inwards had the happy side effect of making the Earth habitable, and eventually - as the Sun enters its final few billion years and swells in size, becoming a red giant - that zone may well move out further again and give Mars a chance at hosting liquid water again. That is, if it gets an atmosphere too, and that's the mystery. We know it must have been there once, but it isn't there now, and we can't be sure why that it. We're not even totally sure if the atmosphere's disappearance is wholly responsible for the transformation of Mars from wet, blue globe like you see above to dusty, red ball that looks like this:

That's a picture taken by the Curiosity rover.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

One possibility for what happened to the atmosphere is that Mars' core cooled down and stopped generating both plate tectonics and a magnetic field, which would have formed a barrier that would have stopped too many atmospheric particles being stripped away into space by the solar wind. Without active volcanoes to generate gases to replace the lost particles, you end up with the situation today where the surface pressure on Mars is, on average, 0.6 percent that of what you'll find on Earth. That's equivalent to being 35km up in the sky on Earth, nearly twice as high as where commercial aeroliners fly.

Maven is an orbiting probe that will launch on 18 November and try to uncover more data about Mars' atmospheric past. Here's Joseph Grebowsky, the mission's project scientist:

Studies of the remnant magnetic field distributions measured by Nasa's Mars Global Surveyor mission set the disappearance of the planet's convection-produced global magnetic field at about 3.7 billion years ago, leaving the Red Planet vulnerable to the solar wind. 

Maven has been designed to measure the escape rates for all the applicable processes and will be able to single out the most prominent. Previous remote Mars observations from orbiting spacecraft have observed the geological features that have been used to estimate the amount of water that did exist and have analysed the global distribution of water ice and surface chemistry to infer that water was lost through time. Mars Curiosity rover has the ability to analyse the chemical composition of the solid surface, which contains information of the atmospheric composition during the formation of the planet, in particular the isotope ratios, the lower atmosphere composition, and the current gas exchange with surface reservoirs. MAVEN is going to measure the current rates of loss to space and the controlling processes. Given the lower-atmosphere information and the nature of the escaping processes, one can extrapolate from current conditions into the climate of the past.

The probe will reach Mars in September 2014, and is scheduled to work for one Earth year on its mission of uncovering more Martian secrets.

Not Earth, but Mars before it lost its atmosphere. (Image: Nasa)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile