NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover may have found evidence of a lake that filled a 96-mile-wide crater billions of years ago near its landing site.
The Curiosity rover, which has been operating on the planet since 2012, found rocks that contained water-deposited sediments near the crater’s center, boosting theories that Mars was once sustainable to microbial life much like Earth, according to a Reuters report.
Scientists found the rocks near a three-mile mound in the center called Mount Sharp, which indicates that the geological feature didn’t exist about 3.5 billion years ago and that the crater was filled with water then, Curiosity researchers said on a recent conference call.
The finding was a “complete surprise,” said lead scientist John Grotzinger from the California Institute of Technology in the Reuters report, noting tha sedimentary geology represented the “cutting edge” for understanding Earth.
Curiosity fulfilled its primary mission by discovering soon after landing on the planet that Mars once had the chemical makeup and environmental conditions necessary to support life. It then headed off for Mount Sharp to look for specific areas that would have had life.
Scientists wonder that if there had been life on the planet, if it would have even had enough time to evolve. The size of the lake that would have filled Gale Crater and the length of time it would have been there suggested that microbial life would have had time to experience some evolution, according to the report.
Gale Crater apparently went through a series of wet and dry periods, according to the new studies, which have not yet been published. This flies in the face of conventional wisdom that Mars had a short-lived period of warm climates long ago.
The rover has traveled about 5 miles since landing on Mars more than two years ago.