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Mars Underground: Niche for Past Life?

A 3-D image of an impact crater in the Nilosyrtis area on the Martian surface shows long pipe-like ridges, fossilized evidence of ancient subsurface water flow. Credit: NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

A photo taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows ridges formed by fossilized subsurface water flow. Orientation of the ridges, mapped by researchers, is consistent with fractures formed by impact events. Credit: NASA and Mustard Lab/Brown University.

Yet more data about the Red Planet boosts the idea that the subsurface environment on Mars once had an active hydrology and could be a good place to search for evidence of past life.

Using high-resolution images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, networks of narrow ridges found in impact craters on Mars appear to be the fossilized remnants of underground cracks through which water once flowed.

The new research was led by Lee Saper, a recent Brown University graduate, with Jack Mustard, professor of geological sciences at the university located in Providence, Rhode Island.

Saper and Mustard also found that the ridges exist exclusively in areas where the surrounding rock is rich in iron-magnesium clay. That’s a mineral considered to be a telltale sign that water had once been present in the rocks.

On the ground evaluation

Importantly, Saper hopes that the Curiosity rover — currently making its way across its Gale Crater landing site — might be able to shed more light on these types of structures.

“In the site at Gale Crater, there are thought to be mineralized fractures that the rover will go up and touch,” Saper said in a Brown University statement. “These are very small and may not be exactly the same kind of feature we studied, but we’ll have the opportunity to crush them up and do chemical analysis on them. That could either bolster our hypothesis or tell us we need to explore other possibilities,” he said.

The research is in press in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

This new Mars work was supported by a grant from NASA’s Rhode Island Space Grant Consortium and through a NASA subcontract with the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University.

By Leonard David

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