Mars and its potential to harbor life has been a great puzzle for astronomers. As missions are being prepared to explore the Red Planet, astronomers want to find landing sites that have the highest probability of hosting life. However, the search for these sites is not easy.
Now, researchers from the Planetary Science Institute have located another promising location in the search for ancient life on Mars. Looking at the area known as Noctis Labyrinthus, they found basins near the volcanic plateau where water once flowed and temperatures might have been high enough for life to develop.
Noctis Labyrinthus is a complex rift system on the westernmost side of Valles Marineris, one of the largest canyons in the Solar System. It is located next to a large volcanic plateau, known as the Tharsis bulge, which is believed to have been active until a few hundred million years ago.
According to the study, published in Planetary and Space Science, the Noctis Labyrinthus formed over 3.5 billion years ago, from underground pressurized water sources. The surface of the region cracked and collapsed, and over millions of years the area was periodically covered with lava and water lakes, until recent geological times.
“The temperature ranges, presence of liquid water, and nutrient availability, which characterize known habitable environments on Earth, have higher chances of forming on Mars in areas of long-lived water and volcanic processes,” J. Alexis Palmero Rodriguez, first author of the paper, said in a statement. “Existing salt deposits and sedimentary structures of possible emplacement within Martian paleo-lakes are of particular astrobiological importance when looking for past habitable areas on Mars.”
Indeed, the mixture of water lakes and volcanic activity might have created a “hot springs” environment that could have allowed lifeform to develop, according to the researchers.
“This is particularly true if the discharge of early Mars groundwater, perhaps linked to hydrothermal systems that were active for billions of years, contributed to the formation of the paleo-lakes, as it is proposed in this investigation,” added Rodriguez.
Rodriguez and his team are interested in understanding what the conditions would have been like in these paleo-lakes. Although their research has potential, it is not conclusive and other mechanisms could have formed the Noctis Labyrinthus.
The scientists are also hunting for more clues on what the paleo-lakes would be like here on Earth. Mars is very cold and has a very low atmospheric pressure, so it is difficult to find areas that are analogous to these paleo-lakes. The team thinks they might have found something similar in Tibet, and will investigate those lakes later this year.
Top: The basin floor on Mars where Rodriguez and others propose that shallow lakes could have formed within the last few tens of millions of years. Bottom: The floor of a high mountain lake in the Tibetan plateau, proposed as a possible Martian analog. Rodriquez et al.