Was there ever a form of life on Mars? This is a long-standing question and scientists and researchers have pondered over it for quite a while now. Several missions were undertaken by NASA to research more about the Martian surface and atmosphere. Over the timespan, several pieces of evidence have been found that add weightage to the fact that life at one point may have existed on Mars. Such as the discovery of lake and river beds, as well as deep-buried organic material that is considered to be a building block of life.
Curiosity landed in Gale Crater in 2012 and is ever since it is searching for samples that could lead to further discoveries regarding the Martian surface. Curiosity has made a recent discovery of sediments that are a thousand feet thick, located on the bed of the crater. Sediments this thick could only be formed when water flowed across the Gale Crater for millions of years. And if water flowed, that means the Martian atmosphere was once warm and humid.
Franz, who is one of the authors of the study, “Indigenous and exogenous organics and surface–atmosphere cycling inferred from carbon and oxygen isotopes at Gale crater”, believes that the Martian atmosphere transitioned from warm and humid to cold and dry, at some point in history. Franz believes that this might be due to the volcanic activity on the planet. This could be further proved by the fact that the layers of Martian rock show elements from colder environments as well as warmer environments.
The minerals embedded into rocks discovered by Curiosity may have formed in an ice-covered lake. These could have either formed during the cold stages that the planet went through in between warmer periods, or solely after the planet lost all of its warm climates.
Franz’s team has also found carbon dioxide within the rock samples that were collected by Curiosity over a span of five years. The presence of carbon could not only mean that the ancient Martian atmosphere was warm, but it was also thicker than that of Earth today.
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Scientists are now focusing their research on finding more carbonates on the planet. Carbonates are formed when carbon dioxide is absorbed by oceans and other water bodies before being mineralized into rocks. Finding more traces of carbonates within Martian rocks can further prove that life once existed on the Red Planet.
Franz, H.B., Mahaffy, P.R., Webster, C.R. et al. Indigenous and exogenous organics and surface–atmosphere cycling inferred from carbon and oxygen isotopes at Gale crater. Nat Astron 4, 526–532 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-019-0990-x