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Mars Was Wet, Studies Say, But Was It Inhabited?

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
December 8, 2004
 
Scientists say there is no doubt that abundant water once soaked Mars. Now the big question is whether the red planet ever supported life.

The early signs are promising.

"[Mars] had a habitable environment that was suitable for some kind of life as we know it on Earth," said Steve Squyres, an astronomy professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and the principal investigator for NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Mission.



Eleven papers by 122 researchers connected with the Mars mission were published last week in the journal Science, detailing what scientists say is "the first clear geological and geochemical documentation of water on Mars."

That presence of water suggests a habitable environment.

"Whether or not it was an inhabited environment is a different question and one that we can't answer yet," Squyres said in a telephone interview.

Pay Dirt

NASA's twin robot geologists—Opportunity and Spirit—landed on Mars in January 2004. Both rovers were expected to operate on the surface of Mars for 90 days, but they are still going strong almost a year later.

Less than two months after Opportunity landed, scientists announced that the rover had found evidence of water on Mars.

The new reports describe Opportunity's initial 90 days on Mars, including documentation of the first close-up look at Martian bedrock at the Eagle Crater landing site.

Scientists have found huge concentrations of sulfur on the planet, thought to have formed as a result of water evaporating. They have also discovered jarosite, a sulfate that contains water and forms under acidic conditions. Textures in rocks further indicate that currents of water flowed in the Martian past.

"We now have proof and scientific consensus that Mars was soaking wet at this place and at one window of time," said Jeff Kargel, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona, and author of a Science commentary.

On the opposite side of Mars, Spirit has been examining layers of a rocky cliff face that also shows signs of alteration by water. Its findings were reported in a previous Mars special issue in Science.

Acidity

Water is considered a precursor to life. On Earth there is no example of life without liquid water.

"Water certainly is a great enabler of life," Kargel said. "Though I'm not one who goes as far as to say, Where there is water, there is life. It could be all kinds of nasty water that is just not suitable for any living thing."

Researchers don't know how widespread Martian water was, or whether it formed oceans or just shallow ponds. Also, if the water did not persist for very long, it could have restrained the development of microorganisms and other living things.

"Whether life could exist at the surface or in the subsurface, and whether it could exist over a limited geographical extent or over a regional or global scale, is unclear," said Bruce Jakosky, a planetary geologist at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Jakosky was not involved in the studies described in Science.

From the mineral deposits, the researchers concluded the Martian surface was not only wet, but also extremely salty and acidic. Such conditions are found only rarely on Earth, in places such as the Rio Tinto Basin in Spain.

That raises particular questions about the origin of potential life on Mars. While highly acidic environments on Earth, such as the Rio Tinto Basin, teem with life, life did not originate in these places. Instead, it evolved to inhabit the acidic environments.

"Could life begin in an environment with that kind of acidity?" Squyres said. "Frankly, I don't know. It would be a challenge."

Biological Protection

Scientists are planning new missions to the red planet that would return physical samples of rock and soil to Earth for analysis. Rocks on Mars may have chemical and physical fossils on them.

Elaborate quarantine measures are being developed to isolate any soil and rock samples returned from Mars, even though such a mission is still at least a decade away.

For their Mars rover missions, scientists made sure that their two spacecraft were extraordinarily clean in order to avoid bringing any Earthly microbes onto Mars.

Kargel, the U.S.G.S. geologist, cautioned in his Science commentary that until scientists learn otherwise, they must assume that life exists on Mars to avoid any biological cross-contamination.

"Once you suppose that possibly Mars is a living world, there's reasonable ground for wondering whether there could be compatibility between life in the physical and biological environments [of Earth and Mars]," he said.

"There may be the ability of organisms from one planet to take fuller advantage of physical environments on the other planet, and thereby reproducing at the expense of the endemic species," Kargel said.

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