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Mars once was warm, wet and humid

Sharon Gaudin | Dec. 9, 2014
NASA scientists today touted new evidence of a warm, wet and humid Mars that lasted for millions of years and could have supported life.

NASA scientists today touted new evidence of a warm, wet and humid Mars that lasted for millions of years and could have supported life.

"Today's Mars is dry and probably has been that way for 2 billion years, but at one time Mars was shaped by water," said Ashwin Vasavada, NASA's deputy project scientist for the Mars rover Curiosity. "Rivers, lakes and ground water were present for millions of years. The atmosphere must have been thicker. Mars must have been warmer... and the climate system must have been loaded with water."

That means Mars at one time had the right ingredients and the right environment to support life, even if only in microbial form.

The finding is noteworthy not just for the scientific community but for NASA's Mars team as well. NASA sent Curiosity to the Red Planet to search for evidence that it could have once supported life.

The question now is how long life could have existed on Mars, according to Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program.

Meyer noted that Curiosity, which has been studying the surface of Mars since August 2012, has found evidence that there was once a large lake in Gale Crater, where the rover landed.

"Gale Crater had a large lake that could have lasted for millions of years," he said. "That's sufficient time for life to get started and thrive."

Curiosity, one of the two rovers still working on the planet, now is at the base of Mount Sharp, which was the ultimate goal for NASA's scientists once the robotic machine landed. It took a while for Curiosity to make its way to Mount Sharp, which rises up out of the middle of Gale Crater, because scientists sent it out to investigate other geographic formations first.

After taking on a dangerous six-mile journey in June 2013 to get to the base of Mount Sharp, Curiosity reached its destination and has been sending back images of the area. Those images are giving scientists clues as to why a three-mile-tall mountain arose out of the middle of a crater.

The mountain is made up of a series of sedimentary layers, NASA said today. Those layers appear to have been deposited by lakes, rivers and the wind.

"We are making headway in solving the mystery of Mount Sharp," said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger. "Where there's now a mountain, there may have once been a series of lakes."

He added in a new conference this afternoon that the rover collected samples from the lake bed — and those lake deposits are not like the rocks that have been sampled on the plains.

 

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