The famous NASA Curiosity Mars rover may have uncovered evidence of ancient life on the Red Planet.
"We have determined that the rocks preserved there represent an ancient geological environment that was habitable for microbial life," Department of Geosciences professor Scott McLennan, said in a Stony Brook University news release.
"Curiosity carried out the work in an area on Mars called Yellowknife Bay, within [the] Gale crater. The rover fully characterized this environment in terms of its geological and geochemical relationships," Joel Hurowitz, another Stony Brook researcher, said.
One theory about Martian history suggests the planet was once rich in running water and clay minerals four billion years ago; if this was the case there is a good chance life would have existed there as well. A drying condition may have transformed the planet to be more "acidic and briny."
The team set out to see when the minerals in Yellowknife Bay formed. Older minerals would sit on the lips of craters, where rock is believed to have originated; rock that formed later on would have been deposited into the crater flowing water.
McLennan and his team believe the Yellowknife Bay particles were carried by ancient rivers, and did not experience an abundance of chemical weathering until much later.
This finding indicates Yellowknife Bay (believed to be the remnants of a lakebed) was filled with mild water that was not overly salty or acidic. The elements present at the time could have acted as a perfect energy-source for life similar to Earthly "primitive rock-eating microbes."
"This demonstrates that the geological environments on early Mars were conducive for life," McLennan said. "It justifies further investigations to determine if life actually existed on Mars. The age of these rocks is perhaps a little younger than thought was likely to contain such environments. This means that the current paradigm for the evolution of surface conditions on Mars may require some reinterpretation."
The Curiosity rover has been on a mission to uncover Mars' secrets by taking rock and soil samples as well as looking at atmospheric conditions and radiation. It is also on the hunt for "building blocks of life" such as carbon. The researchers have high hopes for Curiosity because many of the rocks the rover has spotted were extremely well preserved.
"Finding ancient sedimentary rock that hasn't been 'chewed to pieces' is exceedingly difficult to do on Earth," Hurowitz said. "But such rocks appear to be commonplace on Mars, making it an excellent target for understanding the early history of watery terrestrial planets in our Solar System and beyond."