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New images from Mars point to ancient river delta that formed billions of years ago

Experts say the images can help point them to locations around the delta that could stand the best of chance of containing microscopic evidence of life on Mars.

(CN) — A fresh batch of pictures taken by the Perseverance rover on Mars points to the existence of a river delta in one of the planet’s craters that scientists believe was formed by water flow into a massive lake eons ago.

As scientists continue their quest to discover evidence of life outside the boundaries of Earth, many sights have been set on one of Earth’s closest cosmic neighbors: Mars. Although rover missions and data taken from high-powered satellites have yet to turn up concrete evidence of life on the Red Planet — leaving some to speculate that our hunt for life there may inevitably reach a dead end — many are optimistic that some key breakthroughs might be around the corner.

This is due to the simple reality that life as we understand it has long been linked to the availability of water, a resource Mars possibly once had in spades in its earlier years. While the planet’s potential water supply has either long dried up or become concentrated in ice or underground deposits around the planet’s south pole, the fact liquid water may have once decorated Mars leaves the door open for scientists to find evidence of life that existed around the same time.

This connection between water and life on Mars is so strong that for the first decade of the 21st century, NASA made “Follow the Water” their official theme for the Mars Exploration Program that was aimed at exploring the possibility of life and other resources on the Red Planet.

Now, efforts to pin down the history of water on Mars have received another much-needed boost.  

In a study published Thursday in the journal Science, an international team of researchers led in part by Nicolas Mangold and Sanjeev Gupta say they’ve analyzed pictures from the Mars Perseverance rover and found evidence of a river delta that they believe was formed billions of years ago.

The Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars this past February, captured the pictures inside the planet’s Jezero crater, a 28-mile-wide basin that sits just north of the Martian equator that potentially played host to a massive lake in the planet’s formative years. Experts say that in pictures they observed a series of dips in the rock layers etched along the cliffsides that point to the existence of what was a river delta that flowed regularly into the lake.

Experts say the delta likely formed around 3.7 billion years ago when Mars commanded a much warmer and more humid climate than it does today, a climate that helped that helped the river delta to flow regularly — and potentially even violently.

This is supported by the fact that the rover also caught pictures of a collection of boulders that varied peculiarly in shape and size around the crater. Experts took notice of a series of larger boulders that were situated in the upper-layers of the cliffside, rocks that scientists suggest were likely transported to the lake during high-energy floods along the delta.

With this information in hand, experts say they have the information they need to figure out the best places to check Martian soil using the rover for evidence of life. They say that towards the bottom of the cliffs they found several layers of fine-grained clay and mudstones, rock types that could be ideally tailored to preserving ancient, microscopic evidence of Martian life.

What’s more, the experts believe that the evidence taken from the Jezero crater could help future similar efforts to explore other Martian craters that might be biological treasure troves of information.

“The Jezero crater deposits provide information which could be extrapolated to other paleolakes on Mars,” the study states. “Favorable climatic conditions for rivers and lakes are already known to have also been present at Gale crater.”

Regardless what evidence — if in fact any exist at all — pointing to life on Mars gets uncovered, it will still be some time before humans can get their hands on the samples collected by the Perseverance rover. A “fetch rover” built to collect the rock samples from Perseverance is not likely to launch before at least 2026, leaving 2031 as the earliest possible date the samples could be brought safely to Earth.

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