An ancient lake on Mars was capable of supporting life for tens or hundreds of thousands of years, researchers reported today based on findings from NASA’s Curiosity rover. In March, NASA announced that the lake was once capable of supporting microbial life, but little more was known. Now researchers have shown that the lake existed around 3.5-3.6 billion years ago and actually contained an “Earth-like” environment.
Not long after touching down in the Gale Crater last August, NASA’s Curiosity rover was driven over to Yellowknife Bay, a trough over 16 feet deep made up of basaltic sandstones. It’s there, near the edges of the lake where lower levels of dirt are accessible, that researchers tested to see if microorganisms could have existed. In particular, they say that chemolithoautotrophs — a type of microorganism commonly found in caves on Earth — could have existed in the lake’s environment, breaking down the area’s rocks and minerals for energy as they do on Earth.
The researchers say that liquid water once existed there, and they’ve previously speculated that it would actually have been drinkable because of its low salinity and neutral acidity level. Actual signs of microbial life haven’t been observed, but researchers say that an elemental cocktail that would have supported them was certainly present.