January 21, 2013, 2:34 PM —
Image credit: Flickr / Guillaume Noirot
A huge crater on Mars once may have contained water -- and therefore possibly life -- data from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter indicates.
Researchers analyzing spectrometer data from the orbiter say there's evidence that underground water once flowed into the interior of McLaughlin Crater, which measures 57 miles wide and 1.4 miles deep.
Layered, flat rocks at the bottom of the crater contain carbonate and clay minerals that form in the presence of water. McLaughlin lacks large inflow channels, and small channels originating within the crater wall end near a level that could have marked the surface of a lake.
Together, these new observations suggest the formation of the carbonates and clay in a groundwater-fed lake within the closed basin of the crater. Some researchers propose the crater interior catching the water and the underground zone contributing the water could have been wet environments and potential habitats.
"The observations in McLaughlin Crater provide the best evidence for carbonate forming within a lake environment instead of being washed into a crater from outside," Joseph Michalski, lead author of the paper, said in a statement. Michalski is affiliated with the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz., and the Natural History Museum in London. He had five co-authors for the paper, which was published Sunday in the journal Nature Geoscience.
While the Curiosity Rover has been the focus of attention since landing on the Red Planet last summer, NASA says the Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has circling Mars since March 2006, has "provided more high-resolution data about the Red Planet than all other Mars orbiters combined."
This has allowed researchers back on Earth to learn more about the daily weather and surface conditions on Mars, which is critical in choosing the best landing sites.