by John Brandon
April 01, 2011
NASA's 1997 Pathfinder mission to Mars
stunning image of the planet's rocky red landscape.
Ever wonder why the red planet
About 180 million years ago, a planet-shattering yet naturally
occurring nuclear reaction may have wiped out everything on
sending a shockwave that turned the planet into dry sand.
Even more incredible: A natural nuclear reaction could have occurred
on our own planet - and could happen again, said Dr. John
Brandenburg, a senior propulsion scientist at
"The Martian surface is covered with
a thin layer of radioactive substances including uranium,
thorium and radioactive potassium - and this pattern radiates
from a hot spot [on Mars],” Brandenburg told FoxNews.
“A nuclear explosion could have sent debris all around the
planet," he said.
"Maps of gamma rays on Mars show a big red
spot that seems like a radiating debris pattern... on the
opposite side of the planet there is another red spot."
A NASA spacecraft has been beaming to Earth incredibly detailed
pictures of the surface of Mars. And the beautiful colors and rich
textures of the red planet will shock you.
According to Brandenburg, the natural explosion, the equivalent of 1
million one-megaton hydrogen bombs, occurred in the northern
Mare Acidalium region of Mars where there is a heavy concentration of
This explosion filled the Martian atmosphere with radio-isotopes as
well, which are seen in recent gamma ray spectrometry data taken by
NASA, he said.
The radioactivity also explains why the planet looks red.
Brandenburg said gamma ray spectrometry taken over the past few
years shows spiking radiation from Xenon 129 - an increase also seen
on Earth after a nuclear reaction or a nuclear meltdown, including
the one at
Chernobyl in 1986 and the disaster in
Japan earlier this
Dr. David Beaty, Mars program science manager at NASA’s
Propulsion Laboratory, told FoxNews that he finds the idea
intriguing and fascinating. But to prove the science, the agency
would need to plan a mission to explore Mare Acidalium on Mars.
And there are more pressing issues, including missions to
“You have to assess the importance
of the question relative to the cost of answering the question,”
Still, Beaty expressed doubts, saying
the geological conditions on this planet and Mars have existed for
millennia - what exists has existed for a long time, and there are
few sudden changes.
“Rocks are what they are. [A natural
nuclear reaction] could happen in another billion years, but it
is not something to make you want to go home to your family and
move to the mountains right away,” he said.
Dr. Lars Borg, a scientist at Lawrence
Livermore National Lab, called Brandenburg’s conclusions
unsurprising - and part of known geological processes, not a nuclear
"We've looked at Martian meteorites
for 15 years, and looked in detail at the isotopic measurements... and not a single person out of hundreds worrying about this
have thought there could have been a nuclear explosion on Mars,"
he told FoxNews.
Brandenburg - who once worked at
Livermore himself - defended his research, arguing that defense
experts he talked to off the record said they agreed there are signs
of a nuclear reaction.
Besides, there's a precedence for a natural nuclear reaction on our
own planet, he noted.
The Oklo, Gabon, region of Africa has uranium-coated sediments from
a nuclear reaction that
occurred 2 billion years ago.
A massive nuclear explosion on Mars would have created huge craters
on the surface, visible from orbiting telescopes like Hubble and
from the Mars rovers. Brandenburg said such craters could have
filled in with sand over the past 180 million years, leaving no
visual cues to prove the theory.
Another possibility is that the reaction occurred in mid-air and did
not leave a crater - which is exactly what happened at
event in Russia in 1909, presumably by a large comet.
Harrison Schmitt, a geological expert and the last man to step out
of the Apollo spacecraft on the moon, told FoxNews that there is
“general validity” to Brandenburg’s theory.
He said the nuclear
reaction may not have been caused by an explosion, however, and
might have occurred over time.
Edward D. McCullough, a science and space consultant, agreed that
the Mare Acidalium region of Mars does show some strange colors and
terrain formations that seem unexplainable.
“There seems to be a reasonable
closure between the number of fissions required to produce the
Xenon 129 enhancement and the amount of energy required to toss
material to that point on Mars,” he said.
“This massive nuclear explosion on Mars seems to defy natural
explanation,” said Brandenburg.