Fresh Water! Mars Rover Curiosity Finds 3.5 Billion-Year Old Lake Sediment in Gale Crater That Could Have Supported Life

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There was some big news yesterday that you might have missed. It appeared in the science section of the The New York Times (December 9, 2013):

[L]ife [on Mars], at least in the ancient past, is at least plausible.

John P. Grotzinger, a professor of geology at the California Institute of Technology who is the project scientist for the Curiosity mission, said that if certain microbes like those on present-day Earth had plopped into that ancient Martian lake [in Gale crater], they would most likely have found a pleasant place to call home.

“The environment would have existed long enough that they could have been sustained, prospered, grown, multiplied,” he said. “All the essential ingredients for life were present.

“Potentially the aqueous stream, lake, groundwater system could have existed for millions to tens of millions of years,” he added. “You could easily get a lake with the area of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York.”

The interpretation comes from detailed analysis of two mudstones drilled by Curiosity earlier this year. The structure, chemistry and mineralogy of the sedimentary rocks were not alien.

“The whole thing just seems extremely Earthlike,” Dr. Grotzinger said.

The scientists presented their latest findings at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco and in a set of six articles published in the journal Science.

Imagine dropping down onto the shore of such a lake on Mars 3.5 billion years ago and finding it dead, or with just microbes, indifferent to your own existence. It makes me think of lines from Charlton Heston in the original Planet of the Apes:

Seen from out here, everything seems different. Time bends, space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely.

God, if God exists, has set many landmines through our lives to upend the ego: aging; illness; financial, social, career, educational, marital, or sexual failure; learning that the world is filled with religions, ideas, and cultures not of your own; death; disability; finding out that the Milky Way galaxy, with its 400 billion stars, is itself just one of a billion in the known cosmos; the silence and hiddenness (hideousness?) of God and extraterrestrial civilizations (if they exist).

Add to this disorienting list the discovery of a 3.5 billion-year old fresh water lake in Gale crater on Mars. Long before the Earth had a single blade of grass or insect, it was. Long before the cave paintings were made at Altamira, it was. It changes the self to know this.

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Mars (NASA).

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Here’s a bit more on the Gale crater news–from The Washington Post:

NASA’s steady reconnaissance of Mars with the Curiosity rover has produced another major discovery: evidence of an ancient lake — with water that could plausibly be described as drinkable — that was part of a long-standing, wet environment that could have supported simple forms of life.

Scientists have known that the young Mars was more Earthlike than the desert planet we see today, but this is the best evidence yet that Mars had swimming holes that stuck around for thousands or perhaps millions of years. (It would have been very chilly — bring a wet suit.) […]

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.

“I’m most excited about the nature of the water,” said Jim Bell, an Arizona State University scientist who has worked with the cameras on Curiosity as well as two precursor rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, and is a co-author of four of the new papers. “Previous results from Spirit and Opportunity pointed to very acidic water, but what we’re seeing in Gale Crater is evidence of fresh water. Very neutral. Drinkable.”

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Sources for images: NASA.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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One Response to Fresh Water! Mars Rover Curiosity Finds 3.5 Billion-Year Old Lake Sediment in Gale Crater That Could Have Supported Life

  1. descarne says:

    I hardly think the idea that Mars may have harbored “life” a long time ago is anything to get excited about – that self-replicating complex carbon-based organisms emerge naturally seems to be a property of matter anywhere in the universe that the (Goldilocks) conditions (temperature, radiation, environment – water &c.) exist for the period necessary for carbon based organisms to form and evolve.

    Speculation that “life” in this sense, viz, self-replicating organisms, may also have emerged based on the atomic properties of analogous chemicals in the table of elements, eg, silicon, is a bit of a stretch to my way of thinking. But acknowledging we know very little yet, my hunch remains that the emergence of self-conscious silicon based organisms in the same way that self-conscious mammals like ourselves evolved from the substrate of luxuriant carbon based “life” is unlikely and a waste of imaginative energy – as unlikely as our cultural successors will continue our centuries old colonial drama by voyaging amongst the stars benignly “terraforming” other planets.

    What is more to be wondered at are not the “signs of life” in the the simplest biological or zoological sense, but what we call our “life”, which is only biological in a secondary sense. Biology is the substrate upon which an entirely different “life” for us becomes possible – that is, the drama of our individual and collective existences – the work and aspirations of our imaginations to become something other and greater than mere biology. After all isn’t that what SETI is looking for – intelligent self-conscious organisms like ourselves who can answer our question, Who are we? A waste of effort in my view – we ourselves are the intelligent aliens we search the sky for – if we understood what human life is (a drama with tragic or heroic possible outcomes rather than mere BAU self-replicating biology) we’d be struggling mightily with the “powers and principalities” that possess us (ie, our imaginations) and drive us collectively to one denouement or the other.

    This preoccupation with biology, and the conflation of human life (dramatos) with mere biological life (bios, zoos), I believe is the product of a culture that is exceptional only in its idolatry and narcissism, which is so enamored of the works of its own hands (viz. technology) that it is blind to its own myths, incapable of discerning the difference between physical, biological life and human, self-realizing life. What else could naming oneself Homo sapiens sapiens signify other than self-deluding hubris?

    I won’t repeat what I’ve had to say on this theme before, other than to wonder, given the planet wrecking and luxuriant carbon-based life substrate degrading activity of our material civilization, whether our species existence itself is in the balance in the short term – certainly our culture seems to have a natural and myopic proclivity for self-inflicted tragedy. Still, from previous catastrophes or near misses in our biological and pre-historical journey, small beginnings have re-emerged. Maybe enough toxic trash from our civilization will serve as a lasting reminder, but such is the physical damage we are doing I think they will be spending a long time struggling to survive to pay it much attention.

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