The Curiosity Rover’s year-long trek to its final destination at Mount Sharp on Mars has provided some intriguing new evidence that indicates the odds of life having existed on the Red Planet might be a whole lot higher than we’d thought.
As The New York Times notes, NASA had previously confirmed Mars had been home to standing water, energy and basic elements such as carbon, oxygen, phosphate and nitrogen at one point — all necessary elements for life to exist. There just didn’t seem to be a whole lot of those things, which made the odds a bit long.
But now new findings from Curiosity’s journey seem to indicate Gale Crater had huge lakes, deltas, rivers and underground water for different periods across millions to tens of millions of years. Compared to the previous estimate of hundreds to thousands of years, that’s a very big difference.
This new evidence leads the team to conclude that river- and lake-like formations mapped from orbit are most likely just that -- dried-up bodies of water -- which indicates there might’ve been a lot of water on Mars at different points in the past. It doesn’t mean there was life on Mars, but it makes the odds that life could’ve developed much more substantial.
John M. Grunsfeld, a former astronaut who is NASA’s associate administrator for science, noted that some scientists believe that Earth and Mars were actually very similar 3.5-4 billion years ago, meaning life couldn’t have evolved in parallel on both planets in that period, since they had similar makeups. As Grunsfeld put it to The Times:
“What I get excited about is imagining a Mars 3.5 to 4 billion years ago, a planet with a thick atmosphere, maybe a blue sky with puffy clouds and mountains and lakes and rivers.”
So, what happened to make Mars a big red death trap? The planet is much smaller than Earth, and it lost most of its protective atmosphere about 2.5-3 billion years ago. So, to find any proof of life, they’ll have to dig deep into the planet to find samples from that era. A planned Mars mission set for 2020 hopes to gather samples and bring them back to Earth for further study, and that could be the break we’ve all been waiting for.
(Via The New York Times)