NASA has found some of the best evidence yet that Mars probably once had habitable conditions like Earth that could have supported alien life.
Mars may have once been as habitable as Earth, says new NASA data.
The rover examined a mudstone outcrop area called “Pahrump Hills” on lower Mount Sharp, in 2014 and 2015.
In a paper published recently in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, scientists in the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) Division at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston report on the first four samples collected from the lower layers of Mount Sharp.
Elizabeth Rampe, the first author of the study and a NASA exploration mission scientist at Johnson, said: “We went to Gale Crater to investigate these lower layers of Mount Sharp that have these minerals that precipitated from water and suggest different environments.
“These layers were deposited about 3.5 billion years ago, coinciding with a time on Earth when life was beginning to take hold.
“We think early Mars may have been similar to early Earth, and so these environments might have been habitable.”
Curiosity landed near Mount Sharp in Gale Crater in August 2012 and reached the base of the mountain in 2014.
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Layers of rocks at the base of Mount Sharp accumulated as sediment within ancient lakes around 3.5 billion years ago.
Orbital infrared spectroscopy had shown that the mountain’s lowermost layers have variations in minerals that suggest changes in the area have occurred.
The minerals found in the four samples drilled near the base of Mount Sharp suggest several different environments were present in ancient Gale Crater.
There is evidence for waters with different pH and variably oxidising conditions. The minerals also show that there were multiple source regions for the rocks in “Pahrump Hills” and “Marias Pass”.
The paper primarily reports on three samples from the Pahrump Hills region. This is an outcrop at the base of Mount Sharp that contains sedimentary rocks scientists believe formed in the presence of water.
A NASA spokesman said: “Studying such rock layers can yield information about Mars’ past habitability, and determining minerals found in the layers of sedimentary rock yields much data about the environment in which they formed. “Data collected at Mount Sharp with the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument on Curiosity showed a wide diversity of minerals.”
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We went to Gale Crater to investigate these lower layers of Mount Sharp that have these minerals that precipitated from water and suggest different environments.
At the base are minerals from a primitive magma source; they are rich in iron and magnesium, similar to basalts in Hawaii.
Moving higher in the section, scientists saw more silica-rich minerals.
In the “Telegraph Peak” sample, scientists found minerals similar to quartz. In the “Buckskin” sample, scientists found tridymite.
Tridymite is found on Earth, for example, in rocks that formed from partial melting of Earth’s crust or in the continental crust – a strange finding because Mars never had plate tectonics.
In the “Confidence Hills” and “Mojave 2” samples, scientists found clay minerals, which generally form in the presence of liquid water with a near-neutral pH, and therefore could be good indicators of past environments that were conducive to life.
The other mineral discovered here was jarosite, a salt that forms in acidic solutions.
There are different iron-oxide minerals in the samples as well.
Hematite was found near the base; only magnetite was found at the top. Hematite contains oxidised iron, whereas magnetite contains both oxidised and reduced forms of iron.
The type of iron-oxide mineral present may tell scientists about the oxidation potential of the ancient waters.
The authors discuss two hypotheses to explain this mineralogical diversity. The lake waters themselves at the base were oxidising, so either there was more oxygen in the atmosphere or other factors encouraged oxidation.
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After the rock sediments were deposited, some acidic, oxidising groundwater moved into the area, leading to precipitation of the jarosite and hematite.
The spokesman added: “In this scenario, the environmental conditions present in the lake and in later groundwater were quite different, but both offered liquid water and a chemical diversity that could have been exploited by microbial life.”
Ms Rampe said: “We have all this evidence that Mars was once really wet but now is dry and cold.
“Today, much of the water is locked up in the poles and in the ground at high latitudes as ice.
“We think that the rocks Curiosity has studied reveal ancient environmental changes that occurred as Mars started to lose its atmosphere and water was lost to space.”