A discovery of evidence to prove the existence of a huge sea on Mars some 3.7 billion years ago could offer relevant clues on the beginning of life on planet Earth. Scientists have found evidence to suggest that the vast sea was filled with hot springs pumping out water packed with minerals, contrary to the arid wasteland that Mars is today.
Experts believe that this hydrothermal undersea activity is like what was witnessed on Earth around the same time and could offer vital clues about how life began on our own planet.
The new analysis is based on images of a basin on the south of Mars called Eridania, where the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and its Compact Reconnaissance Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) spotted large deposits of minerals on the surface.
The patterns and chemical composition of these deposits suggest that once upon a time hot springs, a huge ocean, and rocks heated up by volcanic activity were present, the researchers said in a paper published in Nature Communications.
According to the international team of researchers behind the study, this combination of rocks, water, nutrients, and heat could have sparked life into being on Mars as well. However, it has just as much to teach us about the origins of life on Earth.
"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," says one of the team, Paul Niles from the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston.
"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."
The Martian sea, the evidence for which has been discovered, could have around 2,10,000 cubic kilometres of water, more than all the other lakes and seas on ancient Mars combined, and nine times more than all the water in the Great Lakes of North America.
Over billions of years, the Martian atmosphere and all of its water was stripped away by a barrage of solar winds, without the protection we get from the Earth's magnetic field. These new results give us an exciting window into the past.
"This site gives us a compelling story for a deep, long-lived sea and a deep-sea hydrothermal environment," says Niles.
Its potential to birth life doesn't just apply to the Red Planet though and scientists believe that the Martian landscape may provide the missing links to life on Earth. Scientists say the the finding is valuable since evidence of this sort of underwater activity on Earth has been poorly preserved and is difficult to study, so the Martian landscape could fill in a few of the blanks.
Right now the idea that life on Earth began in the chemical reactions sparked off by underwater springs is one of the best hypotheses. Another idea is that the most basic forms of life began to grow from meteorite fragments in small, warm ponds on the surface of the planet.
With help from the Martian data scientists might be able to learn more about the truth of the origins of life on Earth – as well as on Mars and the other planets and moons in our Solar System, such as Saturn's icy moon Enceladus.
Meanwhile, the Reconnaissance Orbiter will continue to keep a close eye on Eridania, and it could be a prime candidate for further exploration in the Mars missions of the future as we look for more evidence for life on Mars.