NASA’s Curiosity rover might have spotted signs of ancient microbial life on Mars, a new study claims. It’s pretty difficult to find out whether there was ancient life on the red planet. But geobiologist Nora Noffke of Old Dominion University in Virginia has found patterns on the Martian rock that look very similar to the fossil sings from primitive microbial life on Earth. Findings of the study were published in the journal Astrobiology.
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Martian formation resembles microbial mats on Earth
Noffke analyzed images taken by Curiosity’s Mast Camera of Gillespie Lake Member, a spot in Gale Crater. Rocks on this site are estimated to be about 3.7 billion years old. The images in question were snapped on Dec.17, 2012. The Gillespie Lake is sedimentary sandstone, formed when the red planet had surface water. While examining the pictures, Noffke noticed patterns in the rock. These patterns were similar to the structures she had studied on Earth that are known to be created by microbes on our planet.
Noffke said she had spent more than 20 years studying microbial mats, which can be billions of years old. She compared Martian formation to those she had studied in the microbial mat remnants on Earth. The Martian surface had triangular protrusions on plateau edges, which on our planet are areas where microbial mats eventually turned into stone. Other spots looked like a flattened tube, which on Earth were caused on moving water currents that flipped the edges of microbial mats over.
Curiosity team reached a different conclusion
The geobiologist studied five images taken by Curiosity, examining “every square inch of the rock surface.” She also spotted remnants, desiccation cracks and erosion pockets that resembled the microbial fossil signs on Earth. But just because the structures look similar, does it mean those structures on Mars were formed by past microbial life? Not everyone agrees.
Ashwin Vasavada, the new project scientist for Curiosity, said that NASA scientists had analyzed Gillespie Lake Member earlier, but their conclusion was different. That doesn’t mean scientists should stop looking for such signs of ancient life on the red planet, Vasavada added. In fact, Curiosity scientists are also going through images, looking for similar signs of ancient life.