One of the youngest lakes — but still quite ancient — to be found on Mars also might hold the best possible chance of finding life on the Red Planet, a group of scientists say. Because of its later-stage development as far as Martian aquatic bodies are concerned, scientists believe that, since the Mars lake formed long after life made its appearance on Earth, the chances of life emerging there would be far better than most other sites on the planet.
Business Insider reported August 11 that the scientists, using images taken from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been in operation since 2006, were able to study the Mars terrain in an area that is now roughly 100 miles from the NASA Opportunity rover. They found evidence that along with the Martian oceans that were prevalent billions of years ago, a lake formed in this particular region, then spilled over the rim of the basin and carved channels into the Martian landscape. It is here that the researchers say holds the greatest promise of finding life — or discovering whether or not it existed — on Mars.
The channel area cut onward into neighboring volcanic plains hundreds of miles away near the Martian equator. According to estimates, the plains are about 3.6 billion years old, which means, because the water channels over-cut said volcanic plains, the channels must be younger. This also means the lake must be younger than 3.6 billion years of age.
Brian Hynek, lead author of the study — published in the journal Geology — and research associate at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at Colorado University-Boulder, told Business Insider: “Having a later stage of water on Mars is probably a good thing for the potential for life on that planet because it gave life more time to be conceived. There was life on Earth when this lake was active so by that analogy, we can say there’s potential that Mars had microbial life and this was a great place where it could have resided.”
Researchers found evidence of the lake while investigating the age and origin of hundreds of salt deposits dotting the surface of Mars, using them to map just how much water might have existed on the surface of the Red Planet. As Hynek pointed out, “Just like on Earth, when salts are left somewhere, that probably means that water was there. So, these are indicators that water was there in some form.” He said that the study was the first time anyone has ever calculated with any confidence the age of one of these salt deposits.
As for evidence of alien life on Mars, Hynek says target the salt deposits. “As the water evaporates away,” he said, “a lot of organic matter and a lot of microbial evidence gets encased in salts and is preserved for long time periods.”
Hynek is hoping that the next NASA Mars rover, scheduled to be launched in 2020, will target the basin area. According to the NASA website, that particular rover would be built around the same configuration as the Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity rover. Its specific working parts will depend on, according to NASA, “current pre-project planning, science objectives, and instrument selection.”