Mars Was Warm, Wet, May Have Hosted Life, Study Says

Anne Minard
for National Geographic News
July 16, 2008
For millions of years, early Mars was warm and wet—a perfect host for the development of life—a new study says.

Scientists used NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to take a close look at clays on the Martian surface known to be associated with water. (See pictures previously gathered by the orbiter.)

The telltale clays—called phyllosilicates—were found to be scattered broadly across the planet's surface in craters, valleys, delta formations, and dunes.

That means water existed in a variety of terrains, the scientists say.

"It wasn't this hot, boiling cauldron," said lead author Jack Mustard, a planetary geologist at Brown University.

"It was a benign, water-rich environment for a long period of time," he said.

The new study appears in this week's issue of the journal Nature.

Close-Up Views

The wet-era Martian clays were first reported in the December 2005 issue of Nature by French scientist François Poulet and colleagues.

"There had been this thought that there were pockets, but how extensive was it?" Mustard asked.

He and his team—which includes Poulet—documented a diverse assemblage of minerals deposited by water, including kaolinite, chlorite, and hydrated silica, all of which occur in a pattern that indicates a waterlogged Martian crust.

"People like to think of lakes and oceans, but the crust is where early life may have started," Mustard said. "There was tons and tons of water that was just percolating through the crust."

The watery era on Mars appears to have ended abruptly. Olivine—a mineral that breaks down in the presence of water—was deposited atop the clays in a still-visible layer on the surface.

The study authors think Mars's wet period ended before the close of the Noachian epoch, the planet's earliest geologic age. That means Mars was wet sometime between 4.6 billion and 3.8 billion years ago.

Sweet and Sour?

At first blush, the finding appears to contradict a paper published in May in the journal Science.

Harvard University researcher Nicholas Tosca and his colleagues reported finding highly concentrated minerals in the Meridiani Planum region of Mars.

The minerals suggest Mars's surface was once covered in toxic brine—not a place where known life-forms would prosper, the scientists said.

"This goes 180 degrees in the other direction," Mustard said of the current study.

But, he added, the results may still be compatible.

Tosca said in an email, "salty conditions may have followed an era where clay formation dominated, or the two may have overlapped, leading to a diversity of chemical conditions."

Hands-On Ambition

Joe Michalski, an astrophysicist at the Université Paris-Sud who was not involved with the new study, called it a "huge contribution" that's "opened the door for ten years of research and debate."

He said astronomers have made good progress interpreting data coming back from orbiting spacecraft.

"It's clear that we need to work together to figure out a way to go to Mars, collect a sample of these rocks, and bring them back to Earth," he said. "That's really going to be the next milestone."

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, set to launch in the fall of 2009, is the next hope for securing such samples.

Mars scientists will discuss possible landing sites at a workshop in September.

One of Mustard's graduate students, Bethany Ehlmann, will suggest two well-preserved deltas—sediment formations likely left by flowing water—in the Jezero Crater.

Ehlmann and colleagues reported the location last month in Nature Geoscience.

The crater once contained a lake bigger than Nevada's Lake Tahoe, they say.

"If any microorganisms existed on ancient Mars," Ehlmann said in a statement, "the watershed would have been a great place to live."

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