How Does a Discovery in Chile Suggest Possible Life on Mars?
Scientists at Arizona State University think they might have finally noticed something in old footage acquired through NASA’s Mars rover aka Spirit. The findings seem pretty insignificant to the untrained eye. But according to the team at Arizona Sate, they provide good evidence to suggest that there was once life on Mars.
Now keep in mind, NASA launched Spirit back in 2003. In 2009, the rover got stuck in some “soft soil” and couldn’t be moved. So NASA said, “well I guess Spirit is a stationary research platform now.” (Not exact quote.) So these aren’t new images. In fact they’re from 2007. So researchers have been staring at these images for almost 10 years before they finally found something intriguing. Well either that or they were sitting in a drawer somewhere. Probably the latter, here’s why…
In 2007 researchers looked at footage from an area of layered rock called “Home Plate” and noticed some weird broccoli-looking stuff. After conducting some more research they found that the structures contained opaline silica (aka opal). So why was this important? Well opal is present here on Earth, and different forms of silica are usually found in marine environments or plants. So this was an exciting discovery at the time, but researchers didn’t really have a point of reference to compare it to– at least for this very specific type of silica.
In comes the Chilean desert. A recent study of the El Tatio hot springs in the Atacama Desert found structures that looked exactly like the weird broccoli-looking structures from the Mars rover. And guess what? Yep, they also contained opaline silica. Researchers have also found similar types of silica in Yellowstone National Park and the Taupo Volcanic Zone in New Zealand– which were probably both created from microbial life. So this helps give them an extra reference.
However, the environmental conditions in El Tatino are more Mars-like than anywhere else they’ve studied. “Such conditions provide a better environmental analog for Mars than those of Yellowstone National Park (USA) and other well-known geothermal sites on Earth. Our results demonstrate that the more Mars-like conditions of El Tatio produce unique deposits, including biomediated silica structures, with characteristics that compare favourably with the Home Plate silica outcrops. The similarities raise the possibility that the Martian silica structures formed in a comparable manner,” as Steven Ruff and Jack Farmer write in the study.
So since microbes are responsible for creating the opaline silica in el Tatio, does this mean there was life on Mars? Probably, but it can’t be confirmed until they study the hot springs (and Mars) more. You can’t prove a negative, so if something else that we haven’t discovered yet created the silica, we would have no way of knowing. But this evidence definitely suggests that Mars was warmer and wetter than we’ve previously thought– which would make it a perfect environment for sustaining some forms of life.