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Mars lake could have supported life, scientists say – Columbus Dispatch

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Mars lake could have supported life, scientists say – Columbus Dispatch
By  Joel Achenbach

The Washington Post Tuesday December 10, 2013 6:29 AM

NASA’s steady reconnaissance of Mars with the Curiosity rover has produced another major discovery: evidence of an ancient lake with water so low in salinity and so neutral in acidity that it plausibly could be described as drinkable.

Scientists have known that the young Mars was warmer and wetter, but this is the best evidence yet that the planet had what people would call swimming holes (although scientists say it would have been chilly — you’d have wanted to wear a wetsuit).

The “freshwater” lake could have harbored life, in theory. The chemistry of the lake would have been congenial to organisms known as chemolithoautotrophs — mineral-eaters. Whether such organisms, which thrive on Earth in exotic environments such as caves and deep-sea hydrothermal vents, actually existed on the young Mars is a question Curiosity lacks the tools to answer.

The findings were published yesterday online by the journal Science and will be discussed in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

Scientists announced this year that they had found signs of an ancient lake within Gale Crater, but the new reports provide a more-detailed analysis. The lake existed 3.6 billion years ago and stuck around for thousands of years, at least, the new reports conclude. Previous discoveries suggested that Mars once had surface and groundwater with the quality of battery acid, but the water in this lake looks much more benign.

“If we put microbes from Earth and put them in this lake on Mars, would they survive? Would they survive and thrive? And the answer is yes,” said John Grotzinger, a Caltech planetary geologist who is the chief scientist of the Curiosity mission. He is the lead author of a paper titled “A Habitable Fluvio-Lacustrine Environment at Yellowknife Bay, Gale Crater, Mars.”

Mars has as much land surface as Earth, and only a tiny fraction of the planet has been explored by the rovers. The fact that Curiosity found signs of an ancient lake with benign chemistry suggests that Mars was broadly “habitable” — potentially an abode of life — billions of years ago.


Science – Google News

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