Every place looks like the best place to look for life on Mars … until a spacecraft flies over or a rover digs in and finds out there’s no life there. However, this new location just might finally be the real deal. Researchers have discovered a basin in Mars’ southern hemisphere that has all of the features needed for Martian life. What are we waiting for?
The area, located near 50 degrees south latitude, is the large Argyre impact basin. It was formed 4 billion years ago when Mars was covered with a liquid ocean and being blasted by asteroids in what we now call the Late Heavy Bombardment – a brief period of high volume asteroid collisions on Mars, Earth, Mercury and Venus. Astrobiologists led by Alberto Fairén, a researcher at Spain's Center of Astrobiology, have been studying Argyre and believe it has potential for life.
Argyre displays a collection of landscape features that are promising from an astrobiological point of view, including hydrothermal deposits, pingos [mounds of dirt-covered ice fed by water] or ancient glacier deposits. This large collection of special features all together in the same setting, accessible by a single mission, is what makes Argyre unique.
According to their report in Astrobiology, Fairén’s team believes Argyre was not just a great place for microbial Martian life to hang out, it’s the right environment for fossil preservation, with indications that the liquid once covering it contained minerals required to cover and preserve the microbes.
Finally, because the basin is big and flat, the team sees it as a perfect location for landing a probe and driving a rover around quickly and without obstructions. Because it’s at a low elevation, payloads on parachutes would have more time to slow down for a soft landing.
Again … what are we waiting for?
An Argyre mission would present a few challenges. Since it’s so far from the Martian equator, a rover there may have to resort to nuclear rather than solar power, like Curiosity already does. To stick with solar, multiple short-duration missions could be sent to do the searches in stages.
The biggest concern is contamination and sterility. Any life-seeking probe must be completely devoid of Earth microbes that could be mistaken for Martian ones or even worse, contaminate the area.
Is the challenge worth it? Of course, says Fairén.
Argyre could be safeguarding the latest remains of an ancient Martian biosphere.
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