Y-shaped mud cracks on the surface of Mars could mean the red planet experienced wet-dry cycles. Mars may have seen cycles of dry and wet seasons and therefore may have been habitable at some point in the past, according to scientists.
An analysis of mud crack patterns on the early surface of Mars, observed by NASA’s Curiosity Rover, suggests the irregular or episodic presence of water, meaning that water may have been present for some time and then evaporated.
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“These exciting observations of mature mud cracks allow us to fill in part of the missing history of water on Mars. How did Mars go from a warm, wet planet to the cool, dry place we know today?”
“These mud cracks show us a transitional time when liquid water on the surface of Mars was less abundant but still active,” said Nina Lanza, principal investigator of the ChemCam instrument aboard the Curiosity rover and one of the study’s authors.
On Earth, mud cracks are known to initially be T-shaped. However, subsequent wetting and drying cycles can cause these cracks to become more Y-shaped.
The Y-shape of mud cracks on the surface of Mars could therefore mean that the red planet experienced wet-dry cycles, the researchers said in a study published in the journal Nature.
Further, these cracks were only a few centimeters deep, suggesting that these wet-dry cycles may have been seasonal or may have occurred more rapidly, such as from flash floods, they said.
These findings point to the possibility that Mars once had a humid Earth-like climate and that Mars may have been able to support life at some point.
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“(The wet-dry cycles create) a perfect site for the formation of the polymeric molecules needed for life, including proteins and RNA, if the right organic molecules were present at that site,” said Patrick Gasda, co-author of the paper.
“Wet periods bind molecules together, while dry periods drive reactions to form polymers. When these processes happen repeatedly in the same place, the chances of more complex molecules forming there increase,” Gasda said.
“These features point to the existence of wet and dry environments that are extremely conducive to the development of organic molecules and potentially life on Earth. Taken together, these results give us a clearer picture of Mars as a habitable world,” Lanza said.