Ancient Lake Found on Mars

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NASA's Curiosity Rover has made another historic discovery, evidence of a freshwater lake on the planet's surface. 

According to John P. Grotzinger, project scientist at California Institute of Technology, the water may have even been good enough to drink. “This just looks like a pretty darn ordinary Earth-like lake in terms of its chemistry.”

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The dead lake, located near the Martian equator, is likely to have dried up some 3.5 billion years ago, roughly the same time life was beginning here on Earth. The most exciting aspect of this discovery is the idea that while the lake existed, perhaps for thousands of years, it may well have been filled with the same sort of microscopic life one might find here on our own planet.

“The new results definitely reinforce the idea that past life on Mars was possible,” said Davis Paige, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Though he is not part of the Curiosity team, the discoveries being made by NASA have excited both scientists and civilians alike as each new discovery may shed light on the potential future of our own planet.

Mars, much like our own planet, has a long and vast geological history. Through its rover program NASA’s goal has been to seek out information on that history and to confirm the possibility that life may have, or may still, exist on the red planet. In fact, Scientist think the cold and barren planet may once have been a tropical paradise perfect for life. Previous rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, both found geological evidence of water on the planet, but due to the high acidity disregarded it as unfit for life.

The recent find by Curiosity, which started out with the discovery of neutral PH in a small waterbed near its landing site in an area known as Gale Crater, became all the more exciting when further analysis of the sedimentary mudstone in Yellowknife Bay (an area within the crater) yielded evidence of a larger body of water and what could very well have been drinkable water containing all the elements needed for life; carbon, hydrogen,oxygen, sulfur, nitrogen and phosphorus. The elements were found when Curiosity super heated clay samples and measured the gases that “evolve.” The tests are carried out by Curiosity via SAM (Systems Analysis on Mars) are very much the same tests geologists would do here on Earth.

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Though some have guessed the lake may have resembled New York State’s Finger Lakes, John P. Grotzinger describes the site with more detail,

What you sort of have to imagine is as if you take a place like the Great salt lake, that has a little bit of water today or Las Vegas Valley or Death Valley – if you go back 10,000 years ago…those basins all filled with water. They were broad lakes but they were shallow.

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Geologists, now able to both see and test the local rocks and minerals of Mars, knew right away the region would be worth the time.

“When we first got the images back, after we had brushed the dust away from some of these rocks — the dust is the typical red-orange color of Mars…there was the fantastic grayish, greenish blue color of the rock that was very un-Mars like,” commented Ralph Milliken, Brown University geologist and member of the science team. “That told us there was definitely something going to be interesting and distinct about the chemistry and mineralogy.”

Scientists theorize that, had microscopic life existed in the lake, it may well have moved underground to escape the radiation on the planet’s surface and perhaps to follow the life giving water, extending their life possibly thousands of years. Though Curiosity does not have the ability to dig deeply for fossilized microbes, the geological evidence may well be enough to inspire another journey to the red planet. With MAVEN well on her way to explore the atmospheric loss of the planet and the volcanic history, NASA is gathering a mass of information that is already leading to a far better understanding of the life of a water bearing planet and may help to guide humans here on Earth as our own planet changes.

Images: NASA

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