Curiosity rover is now exploring topographically higher and geologically younger layers within the crater, where the soils appear less conducive to life. For a record of older life and soils on Mars, Retallack said, new missions will be needed to explore older and more clayey terrains.
Surface cracks in the deeply buried soils suggest typical soil clods. Vesicular hollows, or rounded holes, and sulfate concentrations, he said, are both features of desert soils on Earth.
"None of these features is seen in younger surface soils of Mars," Retallack said. "The exploration of Mars, like that of other planetary bodies, commonly turns up unexpected discoveries, but it is equally unexpected to discover such familiar ground."
The newly discovered soils provide more benign and habitable soil conditions than known before on Mars. Their dating to 3.7 billion years ago, he noted, puts them into a time of transition from "an early benign water cycle on Mars to the acidic and arid Mars of today." Life on Earth is believed to have emerged and began diversifying about 3.5 million years ago, but some scientists have theorized that potential evidence that might take life on Earth farther back was destroyed by plate tectonics, which did not occur on Mars.
In an email, Malcolm Walter of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology, who was not involved in the research, said the potential discovery of these fossilized soils in the Gale Crater dramatically increases the possibility that Mars has microbes. "There is a real possibility that there is or was life on Mars," he wrote.
Retallack noted that Steven Benner of the Westheimer Institute of Science and Technology in Florida has speculated that life is more likely to have originated on a soil planet like Mars than a water planet like Earth. In an email, Benner wrote that Retallack's paper "shows not only soils that might be direct p
|Contact: Jim Barlow|
University of Oregon