Mars Study Yields Clues to Possible Cradle of Life

Identifying minerals in massive deposits within Mars' Eridania basin.

Mars Study Yields Clues to Possible Cradle of Life
This view of a portion of the Eridania region of Mars shows blocks of deep-basin deposits that have been surrounded and partially buried by younger volcanic deposits. The image was taken by the Context Camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and covers an area about 12 miles wide. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Scientists have recently discovered the evidence for ancient sea-floor hydrothermal deposits on Mars. Thus, they are now investigating an area on the planet that may offer clues about the origin of life on Earth.

The observation was done by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) of massive deposits in a basin on southern Mars. According to scientists, it suggests deposits occurred due to warmed water from a volcanically dynamic piece of the planet’s hull entering the base of a substantial ocean long back.

Paul Niles of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston said, “Even if we never find evidence that there’s been life on Mars, this site can tell us about the type of environment where life may have begun on Earth. Volcanic activity combined with standing water provided conditions that were likely similar to conditions that existed on Earth at about the same time — when early life was evolving here.”

Mars Study Yields Clues to Possible Cradle of Life
The Eridani basin of southern Mars is believed to have held a sea about 3.7 billion years ago, with seafloor deposits likely resulting from the underwater hydrothermal activity. This graphic shows estimated depths of water in that ancient sea. The map covers an area about 530 miles wide.
Credits: NASA

Mars does not have any volcanic activity or standing water. Researchers estimate an age of about 3.7 billion years for the Martian deposits attributed to seafloor hydrothermal activity. Undersea aqueous conditions on Earth at about that same time are a solid contender for where and when life on Earth started.

Earth has such conditions but due to Earth’s active crust, it holds little direct geological evidence preserved from the time when life began.

Scientists made observations from the ancient Eridania sea. This observation provides the data for identifying minerals in massive deposits within Mars’ Eridania basin. They identified the mix of minerals from the spectrometer data, including serpentine, talc and carbonate, and the shape and texture of the thick bedrock layers, leading to identifying possible seafloor hydrothermal deposits.

The range has magma streams that post-date the vanishing of the ocean. The scientists refer to these as proof this is a region of Mars’ hull with a volcanic helplessness that likewise could have delivered impacts before when the ocean was available.

Mars Study Yields Clues to Possible Cradle of Life
This diagram illustrates an interpretation for the origin of some deposits in the Eridania basin of southern Mars as resulting from seafloor hydrothermal activity more than 3 billion years ago.
Credits: NASA

Niles said, “This site gives us a compelling story for a deep, long-lived sea and a deep-sea hydrothermal environment. It is evocative of the deep-sea hydrothermal environments on Earth, similar to environments where life might be found on other worlds, a life that doesn’t need a nice atmosphere or temperate surface, but just rocks, heat and water.”

According to the reports, ancient, deep-water hydrothermal deposits in Eridania represent a new category of the astrobiological target on Mars. It also represents a window into early Earth.