Curiosity Rover Helps Uncover Muddy Evidence of Ancient Lakes on Mars

Sunday, 22 April 2018 - 4:15PM
Space
Mars
Sunday, 22 April 2018 - 4:15PM
Curiosity Rover Helps Uncover Muddy Evidence of Ancient Lakes on Mars
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NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
The Curiosity rover has been an invaluable (and, at times, lovable) contribution to our ever growing knowledge on Mars. Particularly in regards to the liquid water which likely once existed on the Red Planet's surface.

While we've found evidence before pointing to water on Mars - as opposed to the small quantities of frozen ice currently there - Curiosity appears to have come across the remains of a Martian lake while traveling through the Gale Crater. Examining some photos the rover took in early 2017, a team of researchers seem to have confirmed a floating possibility that these photos contain desiccation cracks, otherwise known as mudcracks.

And according to a study published in Geology by the researchers, these mudcracks are strong evidence that the spot used to be a lake during Mars' greener years, which were about 3.5 billion years ago. Mudcracks can only form when wet and muddy sediment comes into contact with air and dries up, and these cracks were found close to the presumed lake bed, suggesting the water levels used to change dramatically.



All of the mudcracks examined were on a coffee table-sized slab of Martian rock nicknamed "Old Soaker". And Old Soaker is full of telltale criss-crossed desiccation patterns, but the fact that it's sitting on Mars made it difficult to study in enough detail to confirm anything.

So the team, led by geologist Nathaniel Stein from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, used a number of tools on the Curiosity rover to take a closer look, including its Mastcam, Mars Hand Lens Imager, ChemCam Laser Induced Breakdown Spectrometer (LIBS), and Alpha-Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS). This let them see details like the single layer of rock containing the cracks, or the sediment filling in the cracks. 




The research ended up being enough to confirm these were desiccation cracks, which is fairly conclusive proof that the area was once a giant lake. Stein, who was lead author of the study, said the following in a press release from the Geological Society of America:

Opening quote
"The mudcracks show that the lakes in Gale Crater had gone through the same type of cycles that we see on Earth... We are capturing a moment in time. This research is just a chapter in a story that Curiosity has been building since the beginning of its mission."
Closing quote


We still haven't found any liquid water on Mars right now, as some recent potential signs of water ended up drying up in the end (excuse the pun). But the planet hasn't been dry forever, and the more we learn about its watery history, the closer we can get to uncovering any hidden liquid water.

If it still exists, of course.
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