Software engineer Kevin Gill is no stranger to creating virtual models. He already makes renderings of Earth with his software, so given the copious amounts of data now available about the topography of Mars he decided to create a rendering of what Mars might have looked like in its distant past. Does it look familiar to anyone?
Gone is the red, dusty surface we're used to seeing and instead we see oceans, mountains, volcanoes and even an atmosphere. It bears a striking resemblance to our own "Blue Marble."
Gill's rendering used elevation data from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to create the basis for his rendering, and added in discoveries from NASA's recently landed Curiosity Rover. Using the topography and other data he imagined what that would look like in a younger, Earth-like state.
The depiction shows a giant ocean on one side of the planet that fed into Valles Marineris, a huge valley reaching over two miles long. Gill also added in the various volcanoes that pepper the volcanic plateau, the Tharsis Bulge. Pavonis Mons, Ascreaus Mons, Arsia Mons and the largest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons are all visible rising as brown peaks through the atmosphere on the left side of the rendering. He imagined these high altitude volcanoes would have a more dry, desert-like appearance, thus the brown coloring
The lower regions however were informed by recent surveys of the planet. What are dry riverbeds, and etched coastlines now, are evidence that the lower latitudes had water and a climate that could possibly have supported flora and fauna. Gill chose to add such greenery to the model though no evidence has been discovered of flora or fauna on the surface yet.
Imagining an ancient Mars has been made much easier with Curiosity's recent exploration of the Gale Crater that discovered an ancient riverbed some two feet deep, where water likely used to flow. The Opportunity Rover has also found clays that show minerals may have interacted with water at some point.
Photographic evidence from orbit also clearly shows the outlines carved by water — gullies, deltas, basins and other formations.
Gill also created a thick atmosphere surrounding his vision of the younger Mars. While we know a very thin CO2 atmosphere exists now, scientists believe that in its youth, Mars did have a thicker atmosphere. It's believed the lack of a magnetic field on Mars caused the upper atmosphere to be gradually eroded by solar winds.
Gill will be the first to admit he's no planetary expert, but an engineer who made assumptions based on data and how that correlated to the Earth modeling he was familiar with as he looked to improve his software and feed his curiosity for the red planet.
Still, that citizen scientist approach has given us a beautiful view of a planet that though very similar to our own world is a bit further along in its life cycle. It's a great way for us to learn about this world from an entirely new perspective.