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Evidence of Martian Waters Viewed From Space

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The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has given us detailed images of the red planet. Now a specialized instrument on the spacecraft has provided scientists with a more detailed understanding of the ancient waterways on Earth's solar neighbor.

The Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer (CRISM) can detect chemical signatures of Martian rocks from space. Recent data from the device shows a significant amount of phyllosilicate minerals near volcanic craters and other formations. These minerals point conclusively to the presence of water.

More significantly, the location of these clay minerals in sediments near volcanoes indicates water was active well below the surface of Mars. The minerals probably formed thousands of feet under the crust and were later pushed up to the surface during volcanic eruptions.

The data also indicates the minerals were formed at warm temperatures, suggesting an environment that was hospitable to life.

“What does this mean for habitability? It’s very strong,” says John Mustard, Brown professor of planetary geology. “It wasn’t this hot, boiling cauldron. It was a benign, water-rich environment for a long period of time.”

A related study of ancient deltas in the Jezero crater provide evidence of waters action on the surface. The deltas were part of a Lake Tahoe-sized Martian lake.

Evidence from the study shows there was a large amount of water involved in the delta formations, weathering rocks, forming riverbeds, transporting clays and depositing sediments in the lake bed.

“If any microorganisms existed on ancient Mars, the watershed would have been a great place to live,” said Brown graduate student Bethany Ehlmann, one of the researchers.

It also suggests Jezero crater would be a good place to look for Martian fossils. According to Ehlmann, the lake bed would likely have entombed any microbial organisms present in the water.

The findings were published this month in Nature magazine and in Nature Geoscience.

Source: Nature and Brown University

Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/MSSS/Brown University

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