Potential Signs Of Ancient Life In Mars Rover Photos

Written by on January 7, 2015 in Earth & Space, Sci-Tech with 0 Comments
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A rock bed at the Gillespie Lake outcrop on Mars displays potential signs of ancient microbial sedimentary structures. Credit: NASA

A rock bed at the Gillespie Lake outcrop on Mars displays potential signs of ancient microbial sedimentary structures. Credit: NASA

A careful study of images taken by the NASA rover Curiosity has revealed intriguing similarities between ancient sedimentary rocks on Mars and structures shaped by microbes on Earth. The findings suggest, but do not prove, that life may have existed earlier on the Red Planet.

The photos were taken as Curiosity drove through the Gillespie Lake outcrop in Yellowknife Bay, a dry lakebed that underwent seasonal flooding billions of years ago. Mars and Earth shared a similar early history. The Red Planet was a much warmer and wetter world back then.


On Earth, carpet-like colonies of microbes trap and rearrange sediments in shallow bodies of water such as lakes and costal areas, forming distinctive features that fossilize over time. These structures, known as microbially-induced sedimentary structures (or MISS), are found in shallow water settings all over the world and in ancient rocks spanning Earth's history.

Nora Noffke, a geobiologist at Old Dominion University in Virginia, has spent the past 20 years studying these microbial structures. Last year, she reported the discovery of MISS that are 3.48 billion years old in the Western Australia's Dresser Formation, making them potentially the oldest signs of life on Earth.

In a paper published online last month in the journal Astrobiology (the print version comes out this week), Noffke details the striking morphological similarities between Martian sedimentary structures in the Gillespie Lake outcrop (which is at most 3.7 billion years old) and microbial structures on Earth.

The distinctive shapes include erosional remnants, pockets, domes, roll-ups, pits, chips and cracks, which on Earth can extend from a few centimeters to many kilometers.

Although Noffke makes a tantalizing case for possible signs of ancient life on Mars, her report is not a definitive proof that these structures were shaped by biology. Getting such confirmation would involve returning rock samples to Earth and conducting additional microscopic analyses, a mission that isn't scheduled anytime in the near future.

“All I can say is, here's my hypothesis and here's all the evidence that I have,” Noffke says, “although I do think that this evidence is a lot.”


“The fact that she pointed out these structures is a great contribution to the field,” says Penelope Boston, a geomicrobiologist at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. “Along with the recent reports of methane and organics on Mars, her findings add an intriguing piece to the puzzle of a possible history for life on our neighboring planet.”

A Careful Analysis

“I've seen many papers that say ‘Look, here's a pile of dirt on Mars, and here's a pile of dirt on Earth,'” says Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center and an associate editor of the journal Astrobiology. “And because they look the same, the same mechanism must have made each pile on the two planets.'”

McKay adds: “That's an easy argument to make, and it's typically not very convincing. However, Noffke's paper is the most carefully done analysis of the sort that I've seen, which is why it's the first of its kind published in Astrobiology.”

Potential signs of ancient life in Mars rover photos
Overlay of sketch on photograph from above to assist in the identification of the structures on the rock bed surface. Image credit: Noffke (2105). Credit: ASTROBIOLOGY, published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.

The images on which Noffke drew are publicly available on the Mars Science Laboratory page on NASA's website.

“In one image, I saw something that looked very familiar,” Noffke recalls. “So I took a closer look, meaning I spent several weeks investigating certain images centimeter by centimeter, drawing sketches, and comparing them to data from terrestrial structures. And I've worked on these for 20 years, so I knew what to look for.”

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