New Mexico researchers are watching closely as the Mars Rover probes a previously unexplored hilltop that might hold secrets from the Red Planet's earliest history.
Last week, Spirit reached the Columbia Hills — an area named after the space shuttle that exploded in February 2003."These hills might date back to some of the earliest history on Mars," said Larry Crumpler, a Mars Exploration Rover team member and curator at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. "It looks like a river channel might have flowed through there. In fact, the case is building that lots of standing water — streams, maybe ponds, existed in the planet's history."
Water is important to Crumpler and fellow scientists because it indicates life might have evolved on the planet.
If so, it was most likely microscopic. But still, the idea is thrilling, said Penny Boston, a planetary scientist and Mars expert at New Mexico Tech in Socorro.
"Is there a chance that life still exists on Mars? I sure hope so," Boston said.
With the new evidence of water, she thinks there is about a one-in-three chance that life still exists — based on estimates that are part faith and supposition and part science. "If you asked me that 10 years ago, though, I would have said one in 100," she added.
The Columbia Hills appear to be made of bedrock and researchers can see small cracks with veins of something, perhaps crystal, Crumpler said. He said those features are usually created when fluids move through rock.
"Unless there's something entirely different going on there than we've ever seen before, I'd say that meant there was significant water flow in the past," he said.
Determining the age of the Martian rocks and finding the water flow are both difficult tasks. Scientists can guess at the ages of rocks based on the number of craters.
However, to get a more accurate age of the rocks and when water might have flowed through them, researchers would need a sample of the rock to study the complex chemistry involved, Crumpler said.
"Just exploring the landscape is very exciting — even if it's hard to get exact dates," he said. "This is the first time in 100 years that we're traversing across a completely new landscape. Nobody's ever explored this continent before. You almost expect to see the natives coming down to the beach to greet us."