Ancient Mars had the right conditions to support underground life, according to a new study published this week in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.
For decades scientists have debated the possibility of life on the Red Planet, citing the discovery of ancient river channels and lake beds as evidence of a habitable environment.
However, no concrete conclusions have been made, which is why researchers from Brown University decided to look for evidence of past life in the ancient subsurface of Mars.
In the study they combined data from the gamma ray spectrometer that flies aboard NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft, with measurements of the density of the Martian crust as well as geothermal and climate models to determine areas of potential life.
They discovered that Mars likely had a global surface that was habitable for several kilometers in thickness, and which would have persisted for hundreds of millions of years.
"Conditions in this habitable zone would have been similar to places on Earth where underground life exists," Jesse Tarnas, a graduate student at Brown University and lead author of the study, said in a statement.
Tarnas noted there was a common misconception that the cold, early Mars climate could not sustain life. "What we show is that there's actually more chemical energy for life underground in a cold climate," Tarnas said. "That's something we think could change people's perception of the relationship between climate and past life on Mars."
The findings could help in future Mars expeditions, and could direct scientists where to look for signs of past Martian life.
According to NASA, the rover would seek signs of past microbial life and search for evidence of ancient habitable environments where microbial life could have existed in the past.
Jack Mustard, a study coauthor, explained that the mission of the 2020 rover is to look for the signs of past life, which is where their study could assist.
"Areas where you may have remnants of this underground habitable zone — which may have been the largest habitable zone on the planet — seem like a good place to target," he said.
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