New discovery of cracked mud on Mars has scientists hopeful for possible signs of life
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It's an exciting time to be a scientist as NASA's Curiosity Mars rover's discovery of cracked mud on the Red Planet could suggest conditions that were once favourable to life.
While the untrained eye can't see past the simple combo of dirt and water, to scientists, the well-preserved ancient mud cracks are something to get excited about.
The distinctive hexagonal patterns have long been theorised to have been formed by persistent wet and dry weather cycles on land that could once have been favorable to microbial life, according to a recent paper published in Nature.
William Rapin from France's Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie the lead author of the paper, said: "This is the first tangible evidence we have seen that the ancient climate of Mars had such regular, Earth-like wet-dry cycles.
"These particular mud cracks form when wet-dry conditions occur repeatedly – perhaps seasonally."
He explained the significance of the findings, saying: "Wet-dry cycles are helpful - maybe even required - for the molecular evolution that could lead to life."
Curiosity, which first touched its wheels on the face of Red Planet back in 2012, first spotted the mud cracks in 2021 after drilling a sample from a rock target called 'Pontours'.
It is gradually ascending the sedimentary layers of three-mile (5km) high Mount Sharp in the Gale Crater.
And while we've all complained about the heatwave this year, the same perfectly balanced wet and dry cycles - or seasons - may have allowed life on Earth to get started, by allowing the long-chain, carbon-based molecules - called polymers - to form.
Minerals found in the area include clay, which usually forms in water, and sulphates, often form as water dries.
The cracks suggest a period of time on the Martian planet when long dry spells happened more frequently and the water levels of the crater's lakes started to go down.
But how do they know that?
Mud breaks into T-shapes as it dries and softens into a 'Y' when the water comes back - eventually forming repeated hexagons that, when left undisturbed and crusted with salty sulphates, remained unchanged and have been discovered billions of years later.
The mission's project scientist, Ashwin Vasavada of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, explained: "This paper expands the kind of discoveries Curiosity has made.
"Over 11 years, we've found ample evidence that ancient Mars could have supported microbial life. Now, the mission has found evidence of conditions that may have promoted the origin of life, too.
"It's pretty lucky of us to have a planet like Mars nearby that still holds a memory of the natural processes which may have led to life."
This is far from the first sign of Mars once supporting microbial life, but NASA claims the findings are yet another piece of the Martian puzzle.
But with Congress having recently held a conference on UFOs, who knows what else is possible?