Life on Mars? Scientists find evidence of ancient network of rivers

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NASA's intrepid Mars Curiosity Rover has captured breathtaking 360-degree panorama from the base of Gediz Vallis Ridge that shows evidence of water on the Red Planet. This remarkable achievement comes after three previous attempts spanning three years, with the rover finally conquering the ridge on 14 August, 2023, which marked the 3,923rd Martian day, or sol, of its illustrious mission. On 19 August, Curiosity's Mastcam embarked on a mission of its own, capturing a total of 136 individual images that were seamlessly stitched together upon their return to Earth, resulting in the captivating mosaic before us. The colours have been meticulously adjusted to emulate the lighting conditions as perceived by the human eye on our home planet. Gediz Vallis Ridge stands as one of the last features to have taken shape on Mount Sharp, a colossal 3-mile-tall (5-kilometer-tall) mountain that Curiosity has been steadily ascending since 2014. This ridge serves as a living archive, preserving the memory of one of the final wet periods witnessed on this Martian terrain. However, reaching this geological marvel was no easy feat. Previous attempts were thwarted by menacing "gator-back" rocks with knife-edged edges and slopes deemed too steep for the rover's capabilities. After overcoming one of the most challenging climbs in the mission's history, Curiosity spent 11 days at the ridge's base. The rover then set its sights higher up the mountain, to delve into Gediz Vallis Channel. This ancient channel, believed to have transported water some 3 billion years ago, carried with it rocks and debris that gradually accumulated to form the ridge. Curiosity's incredible journey has been made possible by the dedicated team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, under the stewardship of Caltech in Pasadena, California. JPL has been at the helm of this remarkable mission on behalf of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Where: United States When: 19 Sep 2023 Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MS

Thanks to the combination of images captured by NASA’s Curiosity Rover, scans of sedimentary rock beneath the Gulf of Mexico on Earth, and computer simulations, geologists have identified the remnants of ancient, eroded rivers in multiple craters on Mars.

A team of researchers, led by geoscientist Benjamin Cardenas from Penn State University and utilising data collected by NASA’s Curiosity Rover at Gale crater, a significant impact basin on Mars, has uncovered additional evidence suggesting that rivers once flowed across the Martian landscape, potentially more extensively than previously believed. Cardenas stated they discovered indications that Mars likely had a network of rivers.

The findings of this research have been published in Geophysical Research Letters magazine.

On Earth, rivers play a crucial role in chemical, nutrient, and sediment cycles that support life. Therefore, the discovery of additional evidence of ancient rivers on Mars holds significant implications for the quest to detect signs of past life on the Red Planet. Cardenas expressed, “Our research suggests that Mars may have hosted a greater number of rivers than previously assumed, offering a more favourable scenario for the existence of ancient life on the planet. It envisions a Mars where the conditions for life were widespread.”

The specific geological features identified in the Curiosity Rover’s data were found within numerous small craters but had not previously been recognised as deposits formed by flowing water. Evidence of rivers on Mars has been known since the Mariner 9 spacecraft, the first to orbit the planet in 1971, captured images of dried-up river channels and floodplains on the Martian surface. Mars rovers and orbiters have also detected mineralogical evidence in the form of sulphur-containing compounds which typically form in the presence of water. These spacecrafts have also identified ridges created by sediment in river channels that are billions of years old.

However, the findings suggest that rivers were even more widespread than initially thought. These features consist of alternating steep slopes and shallow benches, along with shortened ridges. They form when sediment deposited in river channels is subsequently eroded in a particular direction, possibly due to prevailing winds.

Suspecting their water-related origin, scientists from Penn State used a computer model to analyse Curiosity’s images within craters and three-dimensional scans of sedimentary bedrock layers on the seafloor beneath the Gulf of Mexico, collected by oil companies 25 years ago. The computer model simulated the erosion of sediment left by rivers.

Previously, Curiosity had confirmed the presence of liquid water in the Gale crater, which the rover is exploring.

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