Ancient fresh water lake on Mars could have sustained life, Curiosity researchers show

Dec 09, 2013
Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) image of a brushed, gray bedrock outcrop of Sheepbed mudstone near the Cumberland drill hole. Protrusion of nodules and minibowls results from eolian scouring of rock surface, creating wind-tails that trend NE-SW. Preference for steep faces of wind-tails on NE side suggests long-term averaged paleowind direction from NE to SW. For more information, please see Figure 3 in the manuscript by Farley et al. Credit: Science/AAAS

Scientists have found evidence that there was once an ancient lake on Mars that may have been able to support life, in research published today in the journal Science.

A team of researchers from NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover mission, which includes a researcher from Imperial College London, have analysed a set of sedimentary rock outcrops at a site named Yellowknife Bay in Gale Crater, near the Martian equator. These mudstones have revealed that Gale Crater, a 150 km wide impact basin with a mountain at its centre, sustained at least one lake around 3.6 billion years ago.

The scientists believe that the lake may have lasted for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years.

The team's analysis showed that the lake was calm and likely had fresh water, containing key biological elements such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulphur. Such a lake would provide perfect conditions for simple such as chemolithoautotrophs to thrive in.

On Earth, chemolithoautotrophs are commonly found in caves and around hydrothermal vents. The microbes break down rocks and minerals for energy.

Mudstones generally form in calm conditions. They are created by very fine sediment grains settling layer-by-layer on each other, in still water.

Sedimentary rocks of the Yellowknife Bay formation. For more information on each individual image, please see Figure 5 in the manuscript by Grotzinger et al. Credit: Science/AAAS

Professor Sanjeev Gupta, a member of the MSL mission from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London and a co-author on the papers, says: "It is important to note that we have not found signs of ancient life on Mars. What we have found is that Gale Crater was able to sustain a lake on its surface at least once in its ancient past that may have been favourable for microbial life, billions of years ago. This is a huge positive step for the exploration of Mars.

"It is exciting to think that billions of years ago, ancient microbial life may have existed in the 's calm waters, converting a rich array of elements into energy. The next phase of the mission, where we will be exploring more rocky outcrops on the crater's surface, could hold the key whether life did exist on the red planet."

In previous studies, Professor Gupta and the MSL team have found evidence of water on Mars' surface in other rocks such as conglomerates. However, the new research provides the strongest evidence yet that Mars could have been habitable enough for life to take hold.

Map of diagenetic features showing spatial relationships between fabric elements. The rock surface coincides with a bedding plane. Note that nodules and hollow nodules pass laterally into raised ridges suggesting variations in lithologic or diagenetic fluid properties. For more information, please see Figure 7 in the manuscript by Grotzinger et al. Credit: Science/AAAS

The team analysed the geology and chemistry of the mudstones by drilling into the rock using the MSL six-wheeled science laboratory, which is remotely operated by the MSL team from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena in the USA.

The next step will see the team using the rover to explore Gale Crater for further evidence of ancient lakes or other habitable environments in the thick pile of scattered across the crater's surface.

Explore further: Image: Messy peaks of Zucchius

More information: "A Habitable Fluvio-Lacustrine Environment at Yellowknife Bay, Gale Crater, Mars", Science, 9 December 2013 by J.P. Grotzinger and colleagues
"Elemental Geochemistry of Sedimentary Rocks at Yellowknife Bay, Gale Crater, Mars," Science, 9 December 2013, by S.M. McLennan and colleagues
"Volatile and organic compositions of sedimentary rocks in Yellowknife Bay, Gale Crater, Mars" Science, 9 December 2013, by D.W Ming and colleagues
"Mineralogy of a Mudstone at Yellowknife Bay, Gale Crater, Mars" Science, 9 December 2013, by D.T Vaniman and colleagues
"In-situ radiometric and exposure age dating of the Martian surface", Science, 9 December 2013, by K. Farley and colleagues

For all papers: mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/mission/… ence/researchpapers/ and gps.caltech.edu/~grotz/Publica… %20Publications.html

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User comments : 22

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what_the_hell
1.7 / 5 (3) Dec 09, 2013
What would 3-billion-year-old fossils look like?
TomD
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 09, 2013
For Earth versions, look here:
http://en.wikiped...matolite

For Martian versions, if there are any .. reply hazy try again.
baudrunner
1 / 5 (3) Dec 09, 2013
I doubt that there are any scientists who believe that Mars could ever have been the breeding ground for indigenous life. In other words, and IMO, life has never evolved there, for the simple reason that the time frame required for that to occur never existed there. That is not to say, as I've suggested before, that archaea do not exist below the surface. They do not qualify as life as far as I'm concerned, but more like specialized, self-contained little biological laboratories for certain biochemical processes that yield hydrocarbon compounds. That is why I think that we should shift our focus for Mars life studies into the arena of intelligent life that may have settled there in the past. That's right, and before all the trolls crack their knuckles to begin warming up their collective typing finger, Google Mars these co-ords: 6°54'25.50"S 75°16'20.62"W. The Mars Global Surveyor image is at http://ida.wr.usg...05.html. There are more sites like these.
sstritt
1 / 5 (2) Dec 09, 2013
@baudrunner,
specified URL not found
baudrunner
2.3 / 5 (3) Dec 09, 2013
Funny, I copied and pasted that MGS URL directly, and now it won't display. Try this URL http://marsoweb.n...dium.jpg

Okay, that one does display. Let's see for how long, exactly. Maybe there are things that NASA doesn't want you to know...?

If that one doesn't display later on, find it yourself by Googling AB108405. That's the MOC image label.
sstritt
1 / 5 (2) Dec 09, 2013
What am I looking for?
scottfos
4.5 / 5 (4) Dec 09, 2013
Funny, I copied and pasted that MGS URL directly, and now it won't display....Maybe there are things that NASA doesn't want you to know...?


damn NASA!!! or, you could try not adding a period to the end of the url helps. hint to self; "ab108405.html." isn't a legit web page.

but thank you for the perfect example of the origins of tin hat conspiracy life, on both earth and mars! no water necessary.

and i'm sorry, did you just say that archaea does not count as life? wow.
LariAnn
1 / 5 (3) Dec 09, 2013
IMO, that's the type of location we (or someone) should be sending rovers to for exploration and discovery. I know there is a group of happy geologists that love the fact that taxpayer money is being spent so they can see and study rocks on Mars, but why not make the taxpayers really happy by showing them something other than rocks!
scottfos
5 / 5 (4) Dec 09, 2013
I know there is a group of happy geologists that love the fact that taxpayer money is being spent so they can see and study rocks on Mars, but why not make the taxpayers really happy by showing them something other than rocks!


they are looking for evidence of water. they all but found it. stop the revisionist history please.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
5 / 5 (1) Dec 09, 2013
The are two really interesting things with the perhaps 200 Ma (million year) period where lakes and likely a norther ocean existed that Curiosity is probing ~ 3.6 Ga bp (before present). 1) It is later than the first (arguable) fossils on Earth, meaning the transpermia theory of old astrobiology which predicted why life arose here so early isn't as likely. 2) Mars has the same hydrothermal systems (HVs) which is implicated in abiogenesis here. And the HV pathway is much faster than the upper limits so far given.

Meaning that earlier enthusiasm for martian life as the global solution has to be damped down. The old theory of indigenous life is still valid, it just isn't coupled to Earth's biosphere in any easy way.

Re the creationist and/or conspirationist and/or UFO trolling (no practical difference), oy! Stupid and contradicting easily googled facts as usual.
baudrunner
1 / 5 (2) Dec 09, 2013
@scottfos: For the record, I said that archaea do not count as life as far as I'm concerned. You may think that an anaerobic, non-nucleated (or prokaryotic) single-celled microorganism constitutes a legitimate life-form, but I don't. And, by the way, typing "ab108405.html" into the location bar isn't exactly Googling "ab108405". Slow down, my friend.

@LariAnn: I agree. At this stage in our Mars exploration experience, the idea of sending ridiculously expensive probes to the Martian surface to scrape and dig around and test shallow soil samples, image odd features and journey mere 10's of kilometers over 7 years seems a little ridiculous anymore. But that's what you get when you do these things in the interest of pure science. NASA appears to be reluctant to step outside of that box and return to the prime directive, which is exploration and discovery. I think that a simple mission with the single objective of sending a camera to image those structures, and others, is in order.
baudrunner
1 / 5 (2) Dec 09, 2013
As for the creationists, this is for them http://www.youtub...nderf00t There are 40 of these video shorts with the theme "Why do people laugh at creationists?". Enjoy, and have a good laugh.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
not rated yet Dec 09, 2013
@what_the_hell: Such old fossils look like hell. No kidding, they are hard to tell and paleontologists have to use many concurrent criteria to get quality. Which is why there is a difference to google fossils before ~ 2005 and after then better criteria became used.

Besides fossil stromatolites, that now reach ~3.5 Ga bp (billion years before present), fossil microbial mats now do the same. (Google the technical term for these fossils, MISS, for images.)

The oldest fossils are arguable, but > 3.8 Ga bp Isua BIFs (Banded Iron Formations) yielded under modern microanalysis that such layered iron is deposited by early life that used Fe as electron source (oxidation) in their redox metabolism. That is despite later metamorphic processes that tend to affect isotope ratios. Such evidence are accepted technically as so called "trace" fossils.

If we are lucky, Curiosity can find something equivalent to the BIFs in the Gale crater center mound.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
not rated yet Dec 09, 2013
Now baudrunner swears off his creationism? But keeps trolling biology...
baudrunner
1 / 5 (2) Dec 09, 2013
Now baudrunner swears off his creationism? But keeps trolling biology...
there's proof positive that you're the troll, because a) your comment in no way contributes, b) you have demonstrated proof that you have exceedingly poor reading comprehension skills because I am not now or ever have been a proponent of creationism or intelligent design (stupid and unscientific), and c) I don't even know why you would mention that I troll biology, since I have never done that. In fact, I don't even know what you mean by that.

On thinking a little further on the subject, I conclude that you believe that archaea are forerunners to truer aerobic life forms. That is just not true. Aerobic life forms have their own history. Archaea are still at work deep in the crust where we find "fossil" fuel deposits. they are unique and independent of life on the surface and in the oceans, constituting their own domain, or kingdom, in zoology.
scottfos
5 / 5 (3) Dec 09, 2013
@scottfos: For the record, I said that archaea do not count as life as far as I'm concerned. You may think that an anaerobic, non-nucleated (or prokaryotic) single-celled microorganism constitutes a legitimate life-form, but I don't. And, by the way, typing "ab108405.html" into the location bar isn't exactly Googling "ab108405". Slow down, my friend.

your first post had a bad link. you then wondered out loud if NASA were hacking you. it turned out it was because you fat fingered the link (e.g. ".html.") i pointed it out to you. you're welcome.

again, you don't think single-celled microorganisms constitutes a legitimate life-form? again, wow.
baudrunner
1 / 5 (4) Dec 09, 2013
gee, @scottfos, you make more mistakes.. you forgot to wrap your quote. It looks like you are talking to yourself. The "wondering out loud" was an attempt at humor, but I guess that escapes you. Again, I don't think that anaerobic, non-nucleated, single-celled microorganisms that occupy their own domain in the zoological record and have no evolutionary relationship with the other kingdoms therein constitute legitimate lifeforms. We will possibly find them on worlds where no other life as we know it has evolved or will ever evolve. Like Mars.
scottfos
1 / 5 (1) Dec 09, 2013
edit
Sinister1811
2 / 5 (1) Dec 09, 2013
but why not make the taxpayers really happy by showing them something other than rocks!


There's not much else to see. Seems like a bunch of rocks and sand and not a whole lot else there. They should look for life already, but I won't hold my breath.
goracle
2 / 5 (3) Dec 10, 2013
What would 3-billion-year-old fossils look like?

Why, very very wrinkled, of course. Or Keith Richards.
Tamil Net Online
1 / 5 (1) Dec 13, 2013
Right now the researchers are driving Curiosity along a 6 mile path to the base of Mount Sharp -the primary mission destination – which they hope to reach sometime in Spring 2014
http://www.tamiln...-planet/

mreda14
not rated yet Feb 01, 2014
This is a lot of speculations. Mars is a plant not too far from the asteroid belt. It is hit by asteroid that makes Mars surface just like a target practice paper for the New York police force. What I am saying is that Mars is a giant sacrificial goat that attract all asteroids that supposed to hit earth. Definitely the first few meter of the surface of Mars cannot be native to Mars. NASA have to seriously consider hiring Bruce Wells (Armageddon is a 1998 American science fiction disaster drama film, The film follows a group of blue-collar deep-core drillers sent by NASA to stop a gigantic asteroid on a collision course with Earth). This way , one can see the real Martian native soil after digging at least one kilometre deep.