Scientists have provided evidence that the red planet once had water and was warmer. Curiosity Rover has found rocks at Sutton Island, a 150 meter tall (500 feet) part of sedimentary rock, on Mars which are enriched by mineral salt. The finding suggests that it is possible that billions of years ago water existed on Mars’ surface which raises the intriguing question: did life exist on Mars? Scientists are excited at the prospect.
It was in 2012 that NASA’s Curiosity Rover landed on Mars in the Gale Crater and has been exploring it ever since. The crater was a massive impact lake created around 3.7 billion years ago by a meteor. Water from nearby lakes flowed in and was fed by melting ice, layers of silt, gravel, and sand which hardened into rock. Each layer remains as evidence of the age.
A Changing Kaleidoscope
Published in Nature Geoscience, the new study gave a striking picture of the red planet as it was billions of years ago. The ponds at the Gale Crater, a 100-mile wide basin that has safeguarded the unique record of an evolving Mars, had something more to show. It has thrown up evidence that briny water existed on Mars’ surface in these shallow lakes billions of years ago. These ponds alternated between wet periods and long periods of extreme dryness, a cycle repeated over millions of years. Different layers formed as a result of these fluctuations which served as a watermark.
The Sutton Island salts are a bit different though. According to scientists, here, water collected from outside and then, there was the dry period. Repeated dry periods resulted in this state.
The task ahead is to determine the period in which these transitions took place and the reasons behind it, as per a statement from NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The Gale Crater was formed from a meteor impact. Mount Sharp was subsequently created by deposits transported into the crater by wind and water. The Curiosity Rover is on its way up the mountain.
On its way up, the Rover regularly takes samples of every layer and transmits the data back to NASA.
Mount Sharp is the ideal place to glean data about the changing topography of mars over a period of time, said William Rapin of Caltech. We are yet to understand how and when Mars’ climate started to evolve. They need to know how long Mars was able to sustain microbial life forms on the surface.
In 2017, Curiosity was able to travel to a 500-feet-high segment of ancient sedimentary rocks where Rapin and his co-authors discovered salts. Analysis of the salts at Sutton Island revealed water had once collected in numerous pools all across the area that gradually concentrated into brine.
The mud cracks in some places are strikingly similar to the geological structures seen at the Altiplano salt lakes in South America. The topography is similar to Martian terrain as rivers and streams from the mountain ranges flow into identical basins. Climatic changes affect the lakes here in a similar manner as the lakes on Mars.
The inclined layer suggests an important change as the landscape is never completely underwater, said Chris Fedo of the University of Tennessee, who is an expert on sedimentary layers. He adds that perhaps we have moved past the age of the deep lakes.
Even as Curiosity investigates rock structures formed near more inclined layers, it is clear that the formation of rocks is revealing a lot more about Mars than we knew before. At least, it shows that water existed on Mars’ surface, which is a very important discovery.
Image Credits: NASA
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