New Mars Maps Reveal Ancient Water Evidence

A three-dimensional view of the west of "Ceti Mensa" prominence on Mars. Geologists believe these rock layers formed from sand trapped in shallow lakes. Evidence of past life could be preserved as fossils in these layers. U.S. Geological Survey (Public Domain)

Was there once life on Mars? It's a question that astrobiologists—astronomers searching for life elsewhere in the universe—along with the rest of us have been asking for quite some time. Three new maps just released by the U.S. Geological Survey give new reasons to think the answer may be yes.

The maps show evidence of a geologic process that hints at a wet environment. Dr. Chris Okubo, a scientist with USGS and lead author of the maps, says they reveal an environment, "where groundwater was abundant and occasionally seeped onto the ground surface, forming pools."

Evidence of water is one of the key features that astrobiologists look for in their search for life in the past or present. "These pools would have been habitable for life, just as they are on Earth," said Okubo.

The maps shown in the video here reveal faults and landforms in the Martian rock layers that resemble the way water shapes our planet. The accompanying photographs show close-ups of the formations.

If there was life on Mars, it is long dead. Finding fossils would require drilling several feet down into the Martian surface, a difficult task equivalent to boring into frozen earthly dirt.

Image of the east Candor Sulci area of Mars. The colors, which distinguish individual rock layers, may be the result of different chemical compositions, physical makeup, or surface roughness. These layers once lay flat but were moved by a large landslide. U.S. Geological Survey (Public Domain)