Mars Groundwater and Warm Water Lakes - a Recipe for Life?

Mars Groundwater Flow Induced Collapse and Flooding in Noctis Labyrinthus

You've seen it before ...

The massive chasms and canyons that make up Valles Marineris​.  

And when you look at them, it seems clear that they were more than likely caused by catastrophic flooding followed by the collapse of the canyon sides.

Just like the Grand Canyon here on Earth...​

And now, according to a new paper by Planetary Science Institute Senior Scientist J. Alexis Palmero Rodriguez, that collapse resulted in the formation of some of the deepest basins on Mars and may be one of the best spots to search for life.

As Rodriguez writes in "Groundwater Flow Induced Collapse and Flooding in Noctis Labyrinthus, Mars", these basins could have been covered and exposed, over and over again, perhaps over a period of  hundreds of millions of years, by lava and water lakes that were discharged from pressurized sources of Mars groundwater.

...and that means it's an area that could possibly have harbored life ...

As Rodriguez stated:​

The temperature ranges, presence of liquid water, and nutrient availability, which characterize known habitable environments on Earth, have higher chances of forming on Mars in areas of long-lived water and volcanic processes.

Rodriquez and his co-authors postulate that an ancient Mars groundwater system flowed through surface salt deposits, creating "conduits" that led to the head of the Chryse outflow channels. As the water breached the channels, it caused massive flooding and collapsed the flanks of the "conduits", blocking the water like a dam and causing deep, enclosed basins.

These basins -- paleo-lakes, if you will -- were then warmed by the volcanic activity in the Tharsis bulge, making them conducive to life.

RELATED: Water on Mars

As Rodriguez added:​

Existing salt deposits and sedimentary structures of possible emplacement within Martian paleo-lakes are of particular astrobiological importance when looking for past habitable areas on Mars. This is particularly true if the discharge of early Mars groundwater, perhaps liked to hydrothermal systems that were active for billions of years, contributed to the formation of the paleo-lakes, as it is proposed in this investigation.

In fact, the same process occurs here on Earth.

In Tibet, there are similar regions with lakes that look like an analog to parts of Noctis Labyrinthus​, and Rodriguez wants to investigate them directly to help prove his theory.

In collaboration with the Chinese government, plans are being made to visit Tibet this coming summer and study their similarities to the Mars groundwater system in Noctis labyrinthus.

Mars groundwater system similar to lakes in Tibet

Perspective views of (top) the floor of a basin where Rodriguez and others propose in this investigation that shallow lakes could have formed within the last few tens of millions of years, and (below) the floor of a proposed Martian analog high mountain lake in the Tibetan plateau, where Rodriguez will conduct a field investigation this coming summer. The arrows in both panels identify similar ridges that surround the basin's floor. In the Tibetan lake case, the ridges are thought to form as sediments are pushed outwards by the freezing waters. These types of ridges might be diagnostic shoreline feature of lakes that formed under extremely cold and dry Martian conditions. A key objective of the planned field expedition is to investigate these bizarre shoreline features and characterize their astrobiological potential. Credit: Planetary Science Institute

These studies could highlight the potential of Noctis Labyrinthus as a region of prime interest for astrobiological exploration -- and maybe even lead to eventual on-site exploration.

Let's hope we don't have to wait too long for it.​

"Groundwater Flow Induced Collapse and Flooding in Noctis Labyrinthus, Mars," J. Alexis Palmero Rodriguez et al., 2016, Planetary and Space Science. PSI Senior Scientist Cathy Weitz and Associate Research Scientist Thomas Platz are co-authors on the paper.

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