Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Life On Mars? Elusive Mineral Bolsters Chances, Researchers Say

Date:
December 19, 2008
Source:
Brown University
Summary:
A research team led by Brown University has found evidence of a long-sought mineral that shows Mars was home to a variety of watery environments, including regional pockets of neutral or alkaline water. The finding, detailed in the Dec. 19 edition of Science, bolsters the chances that primitive life sprang up in those benign spots.

A Brown-led team found carbonate-bearing rocks in the sides of eroded mesas in the Nili Fossae region. Scientists believe the carbonates may have been formed at the surface when olivine-rich rocks were exposed, and altered, by running water.
Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/University of Arizona/Brown University

Over the last several years, scientists have built a very convincing case that Mars hosted water, at least early in its history. Recent observations from the Mars Phoenix lander and other spacecraft show that the planet still holds vast deposits of water as ice at its poles and in soil-covered glaciers in the mid-latitudes.

Related Articles


What is less known is how much water occupied the red planet and what happened to it during its geological march to the present. Mostly, evidence has pointed to a period when clay-rich minerals were formed by water, followed by a drier time, when salt-rich, acidic water affected much of the planet. Assuming that happened, the thinking goes, it would have been difficult for life, if it did exist, to have survived and for scientists to find traces of it.

Now a research team led by Brown University has found evidence of carbonates, a long-sought mineral that shows Mars was home to a variety of watery environments — some benign, others harsh — and that the acidic bath the planet endured left at least some regional pockets unscathed.

If primitive life sprang up in pockets that avoided the acidic transformation, clues for it may remain.

"Primitive life would have liked it," said Bethany Ehlmann, a Brown graduate student and lead author of the paper that appears in the Dec. 19 edition of Science. "It's not too hot or too cold. It's not too acidic. It's a 'just right' place.'

Finding carbonates indicates that Mars had neutral to alkaline waters when the minerals formed in the mid-latitude region more than 3.6 billion years ago. Carbonates dissolve quickly in acid, therefore their survival challenges suggestions that an exclusively acidic environment later cloaked the planet.

The carbonates showed up in the most detail in two-dozen images beamed back by the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars, an instrument aboard the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Scientists found the mineral near a trough system called Nili Fossae, which is 667 kilometers (414 miles) long, at the edge of the Isidis impact basin. Carbonates were seen in a variety of terrains, including the sides of eroded mesas, sedimentary rocks within Jezero crater and rocks exposed on the sides of valleys in the crater's watershed. The researchers also found traces of carbonates in Terra Tyrrhena and in Libya Montes.

NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander recently found carbonates in soil samples, and researchers had previously found them in Martian meteorites that fell to Earth and in windblown Mars dust observed from orbit. However, the dust and soil could be mixtures from many areas, so the origins of carbonates have been unclear. The latest observations indicate carbonates may have formed over extended periods on early Mars and also point to specific locations where future rovers and landers could search for possible evidence of past life.

"This is opening up a range of environments on Mars," said John "Jack" Mustard, a Brown professor of geological sciences and a co-author on the Science paper. "This is highlighting an environment that to the best of our knowledge doesn't experience the same kind of unforgiving conditions that have been identified in other areas."

The researchers, including Brown graduate student Leah Roach and scientists from NASA, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, the Institut d'Astrophysique Spatiale at the University of Paris, the U.S. Geological Survey, Cornell University and the University of Nevada, have multiple hypotheses for how the carbonate-bearing rocks were formed and the origin of the water that shaped them. They may have been formed by slightly heated groundwater percolating through fractures in olivine-rich rocks. Or, they may have been formed at the surface when olivine-rich rocks were exposed and altered by running water. Yet another theory is the carbonates precipitated in small, shallow lakes. Either way, such environments would have boded well for primitive life forms to emerge.

"We know there's been water all over the place, but how frequently have the conditions been hospitable for life?" Mustard said. "We can say pretty confidently that when water was present in the places we looked at, it would have been a happy, pleasant environment for life."

NASA and the National Science Foundation funded the research.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Brown University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Brown University. "Life On Mars? Elusive Mineral Bolsters Chances, Researchers Say." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 19 December 2008. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081218141718.htm>.
Brown University. (2008, December 19). Life On Mars? Elusive Mineral Bolsters Chances, Researchers Say. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 25, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081218141718.htm
Brown University. "Life On Mars? Elusive Mineral Bolsters Chances, Researchers Say." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081218141718.htm (accessed October 25, 2014).

Share This



More Space & Time News

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Raw: China Launches Moon Orbiter

Raw: China Launches Moon Orbiter

AP (Oct. 24, 2014) China launched an experimental spacecraft Friday to fly around the moon and back to Earth in preparation for the country's first unmanned return trip to the lunar surface. (Oct. 24) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
China Prepares Unmanned Mission To Lunar Orbit

China Prepares Unmanned Mission To Lunar Orbit

Newsy (Oct. 23, 2014) The mission is China's next step toward automated sample-return missions and eventual manned missions to the moon. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Russian Cosmonauts Kick Off Final Spacewalk of 2014

Russian Cosmonauts Kick Off Final Spacewalk of 2014

Reuters - US Online Video (Oct. 22, 2014) Russian cosmonauts Maxim Suraev and Alexander Samokutyaev step outside the International Space Station to perform work on the exterior of the station's Russian module. Rough Cut (no reporter narration) Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Comet Siding Spring Grazes Mars' Atmosphere

Comet Siding Spring Grazes Mars' Atmosphere

Newsy (Oct. 19, 2014) A comet from the farthest reaches of the solar system passed extremely close to Mars this weekend, giving astronomers a rare opportunity to study it. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Space & Time

Matter & Energy

Computers & Math

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins