It is now a well-understood fact that Mars once had quite a bit of liquid water on its surface. In fact, according to a recent estimate, a large sea in Mars’ southern hemisphere once held almost 10 times as much water as all of North America’s Great Lakes combined. This sea existed roughly 3.7 billion years ago, and was located in the region known today as the Eridania basin.
However, a new study based on data from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) detected vast mineral deposits at the bottom of this basin, which could be seen as evidence of ancient hot springs. Since this type of hydrothermal activity is believed to be responsible for the emergence of life on Earth, these results could indicate that this basin once hosted life as well.
The study, titled “Ancient Hydrothermal Seafloor Deposits in Eridania Basin on Mars“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature Communications. The study was led by Joseph Michalski of the Department of Earth Sciences and Laboratory for Space Research at the University of Hong Kong, along with researchers from the Planetary Science Institute, the Natural History Museum in London, and NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
Together, this international team used data obtained by the MRO’s Compact Reconnaissance Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM). Since the MRO reached Mars in 2006, this instrument has been used extensively to search for evidence of mineral residues that form in the presence of water. In this respect, CRISM was essential for documenting how lakes, ponds and rivers once existed on the surface of Mars.
In this case, it identified massive mineral deposits within Mars’ Eridania basin, which lies in a region that has some of the Red Planet’s most ancient exposed crust. The discovery is expected to be a major focal point for scientists seeking to characterize Mars’ once-warm and wet environment. As Paul Niles of NASA’s Johnson Space Center said in a recent NASA press statement:
“Even if we never find evidence that there’s been life on Mars, this site can tell us about the type of environment where life may have begun on Earth. Volcanic activity combined with standing water provided conditions that were likely similar to conditions that existed on Earth at about the same time — when early life was evolving here.”
Today, Mars is a cold, dry place that experiences no volcanic activity. But roughly 3.7 billion years ago, the situation was vastly different. At that time, Mars boasted both flowing and standing bodies of water, which are evidenced by vast fluvial deposits and sedimentary basins. The Gale Crater is a perfect example of this since it was once a major lake bed, which is why it was selected as the landing sight for the Curiosity rover in 2012.
Since Mars had both surface water and volcanic activity during this time, it would have also experienced hydrothermal activity. This occurs when volcanic vents open into standing bodies of water, filling them with hydrated minerals and heat. On Earth, which still has an active crust, evidence of past hydrothermal activity cannot be preserved. But on Mars, where the crust is solid and erosion is minimal, the evidence has been preserved.
“This site gives us a compelling story for a deep, long-lived sea and a deep-sea hydrothermal environment,” Niles said. “It is evocative of the deep-sea hydrothermal environments on Earth, similar to environments where life might be found on other worlds — life that doesn’t need a nice atmosphere or temperate surface, but just rocks, heat and water.”
Based on their study, the researchers estimate that the Eridania basin once held about 210,000 cubic km (50,000 cubic mi) of water. Not only is this nine times more water than all of the Great Lakes combined, it is as much as all the other lakes and seas on ancient Mars combined. In addition, the region also experienced lava flows that existed after the sea is believed to have disappeared.
From the CRISM’s spectrometer data, the team identified deposits of serpentine, talc and carbonate. Combined with the shape and texture of the bedrock layers, they concluded that the sea floor was open to volcanic fissures. Beyond indicating that this region could have once hosted life, this study also adds to the diversity of the wet environments which are once believed to have existed on Mars.
Between evidence of ancient lakes, rivers, groundwater, deltas, seas, and volcanic eruptions beneath ice, scientists now have evidence of volcanic activity that occurred beneath a standing body of water (aka. hot springs) on Mars. This also represents a new category for astrobiological research, and a possible destination for future missions to the Martian surface.
The study of hydrothermal activity is also significant as far as finding sources of extra-terrestrial, like on the moons of Europa, Enceladus, Titan, and elsewhere. In the future, robotic missions are expected to travel to these worlds in order to peak beneath their icy surfaces, investigate their plumes, or venture into their seas (in Titan’s case) to look for the telltale traces of basic life forms.
The study also has significance beyond Mars and could aid in the study of how life began here on Earth. At present, the earliest evidence of terrestrial life comes from seafloor deposits that are similar in origin and age to those found in the Eridania basin. But since the geological record of this period on Earth is poorly preserved, it has been impossible to determine exactly what conditions were like at this time.
Given Mars’ similarities with Earth, and the fact that its geological record has been well-preserved over the past 3 billion years, scientists can look to mineral deposits and other evidence to gauge how natural processes here on Earth allowed for life to form and evolve over time. It could also advance our understanding of how all the terrestrial planets of the Solar System evolved over billions of years.
Further Reading: NASA