No canals on Mars but scientists discover strongest evidence yet planet was once habitable capable of supporting life

Red Planet had at least one large freshwater lake with right sort of chemical make-up to support kind of mineral-eating microbes seen on Earth

Science Editor

Scientists have discovered the strongest evidence to date that Mars was once a habitable planet capable of supporting primitive microbial life-forms at some time in the past.

An international team of researchers has found that about 3.6 billion years ago Mars had at least one large freshwater lake with the right sort of chemical make-up to support the kind of mineral-eating microbes seen on Earth.

Studies carried out by Nasa’s Curiosity Rover have for the first time revealed the existence of a type of sedimentary rock known as mudstone which is likely to have been created by a large body of standing water that had existed for at least many thousands of years.

Although the scientists emphasised that they have not yet found the smoking gun that proves the past existence of life on Mars, they are jubilant about finding what they believe is solid evidence that the planet was capable of supporting microbial life at some point in the past.

“I think it’s a step change in our understanding of Mars. It’s the strongest evidence yet that Mars could have been habitable for ancient microbial life,” said Professor Sanjeev Gupta of Imperial College London and a member of Nasa’s Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity mission.

“This is dramatic. We have effectively found what was once a standing body of water and although we don’t know how long it was there for, liquid must have been stable on the Martian surface for at least thousands or even millions of years,” Professor Gupta said.

Previous studies indicated that water had once flowed freely on Mars. Satellite images showed the kind of ground erosion that could have been caused by fast-moving water. This was further supported last year when the Curiosity rover found the smoothly-eroded pebbles of a dried-up river bed.

However, scientists believe that fast-flowing water is not conducive for the origin of life and so have been looking for lakes or ponds of permanent standing water that could have provided a more stable, habitable environment for the first Martian life-forms.

Mudstones usually form under calm conditions by the very gradual build up over long period of time of very fine grains of sediment which settle layer by layer on top of each other on the bed of a lake or sea.

The six-wheeled Curiosity rover found the mudstones at a place known as Yellowknife Bay near to its landing site within the Gale Crater, a 150 kilometre-wide impact basin with a mountain at its centre. Nasa sent Curiosity on a detour from its planned exploration of the mountain at the centre of the crater to explore a “thermal anomaly” at Yellowknife Bay.

Curiosity drilled into the rock and tested its composition with instruments designed to analyse the chemical makeup of solids when they are heated and vaporised. The studies, published in the journal Science, revealed the presence of the vital elements of life, namely carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulphur.

The study also found that the relatively neutral acidity of the lake would not have prevented life from forming, that the water was not too salty for life and that it could have existed as a standing body of water long enough for life to form.

It is possible that the mudstone beds extend for hundreds of metres deep under the Martian surface, which would represent tens of millions of years of geological time, the study found.

“We can envisage many combinations of terrestrial microbes that would be suited to form a Martian biosphere founded on chemolithoautotrophy [mineral-eating microbes] at Yellowknife Bay,” the study concluded.

Texture of the 'snake' as seen by MAHLI on Sol 149 Texture of the 'snake' as seen by MAHLI on Sol 149 (AFP/Getty) Professor Gupta said: “It is important to note that we have not found signs of ancient life on Mars. What we have found is that Gale Crater was able to sustain a lake on its surface at least once in its ancient past that may have been favourable for microbial life billions of years ago.

“This is a huge positive step for the exploration of Mars. It is exciting to think that billions of years ago, ancient microbial life may have existed in the lake’s calm waters, converting a rich array of elements into energy,” Professor Gupta said.

“The next phase of the mission, where we will be exploring more rocky outcrops on the craters surface, could hold the key to whether life did exist on the red planet,” he added.

Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
VIDEO
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
Environment
People are buying increasing numbers of plants such as lavender to aid the insects
environmentGardeners rally round the endangered bumblebee
Sport
Australia's Dylan Tombides competes for the ball with Adal Matar of Kuwait during the AFC U-22 Championship Group C match in January
sportDylan Tombides was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011
News
Ida Beate Loken has been living at the foot of a mountain since May
newsNorwegian gives up home comforts for a cave
Extras
indybest10 best gardening gloves
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
News
Posted at the end of March, this tweeted photo was a week off the end of their Broadway shows
people
News
peopleStar to remain in hospital for up to 27 days to get over allergic reaction
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Life & Style
life
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit