Newly Discovered Mars Lake May Have Had Last Potentially Habitable Surface Water

First Posted: Aug 08, 2015 08:51 AM EDT

Mars once held water, but it turned cold and dry long ago. Now, though, researchers have uncovered evidence of an ancient lake that likely represents some of the last potentially habitable surface water ever to exist on the Red Planet.

The new study examined an 18-squre-mile chloride salt deposit in the planet's Meriadiani region near the Mars Opportunity rover's landing site. The large-scale salt deposits found there are considered to be evidence of evaporated bodies of water.

The researchers also used digital terrain mapping and mineralogical analysis of the features surrounding the deposit. This revealed that this one-time lakebed is no older than 3.6 billion years old, which is well after the time period when Mars is thought to have been warm enough to sustain large amounts of surface water planet-wide. Planetary scientists also believe that the solar system formed about 4.6 billion years ago.

"This was a long-lived lake, and we were able to put a very good time boundary on its maximum age," said Brian Hynek, lead author of the new study, in a news release. "We can be pretty certain that this is one of the last instances of a sizable lake on Mars."

Based on the extent and thickness of the salt, the researchers believe that the lake was only about 8 percent as salt as Earth's oceans. This means that it may have been hospitable to microbial life.

"By salinity alone, it certainly seems as though this lake would have been habitable throughout much of its existence," said Hynek.

The findings reveal that Mars may just have been hospitable to life. However, it will be up to the Mars rovers to find hard evidence of this life.

The findings are published in the journal Geology.

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