CBC: Mars freshwater lake could have supported life

Martian recipe for life: Just Add Water

Curiosity, the eighth Mars landing in the ongoing quest for life on the Red Planet, has found in the dry mudstone of Gale Crater’s Yellowknife Bay the chemical elements ordinarily associated with living organisms. Brushing away the ubiquitous red Martian dirt in what appears to be a dry lake, Curiosity’s robotic instruments found gray mudstone with a composition suggesting past conditions friendly to microbial life. While neither microbes nor organic compounds have been found, researchers believe they are looking in the right place.

MarsThis apparent lake on Mars, known as Yellowknife Bay, is named after the capital of Canada’s Northwest Territories. It looks like a dry lake bed. Because its mudstone surface could have been formed by water-borne sediment, scientists are hopeful that any organic chemicals in it might have been preserved by adhering to clay minerals. Though none have been found thus far, NASA’s quest for life on Mars—past or present—continues. Image: Science/AAAS through CBC News

Looking For Life In A Martian Lake

When Yellowknife Bay was first noted to resemble a dry lake bed, researchers anticipated it would be a “candy store of targets” in Curiosity’s search for Martian life. Now that its geochemistry is being analyzed, they continue hopeful since it appears the past conditions were habitable. Thus far, however, no evidence of life has been found in this apparent lake on Mars.

“I think a lot of it just comes down to drilling the right hole,” says Mariek Schmidt of the Mars Science Laboratory team. The team just had a bevy of papers describing the geology and chemistry of Yellowknife Bay published in a special edition of Science. “The exciting thing,” she says, “is we've been able to document a habitable environment that could have been a nice place for microbes.”

In the search for life, the first maxim is “Follow the water!” If Mars ever had surface water, water and fine sediment could have flowed down from the rim of Gale Crater to collect in a lake like Yellowknife Bay and produce the mudstone Curiosity is now analyzing.

Can Mars Support Life?

Water is essential for life, so if Mars ever supported life, the best place to look for evidence of it would be where liquid water had once been. When orbital reconnaissance craft and rovers such as Opportunity showed topography typical of that associated with past exposure to water, the effort to look for life such water might have spawned through evolutionary processes intensified. “If you've seen the pictures, it really looks like a dried-out lake,” says Ralf Gellert, who manages a spectrometer on the rover. One of the main reasons Gale Crater was chosen for Curiosity to explore was the fact that photographs suggested many of its features may have been shaped by water.

Habitable Chemistry But Not So Much As A Microbe

Yellowknife Bay contains the chemical elements—carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sulfur, nitrogen, and phosphorus—that are required to form organic compounds in living organisms. Iron and sulfur in the minerals also exists in the chemical states that would allow them to participate in energy transfer reactions in living organisms.

Mudstone formed from sediment eroded from basalt comprises the surface of Yellowknife Bay. The conditions in Yellowknife Bay today suggest that with the addition of water the region could have supported microbial life. On earth, mudstone and mild conditions like these are found in the Columbia River and in parts of Iceland. (Granitic rocks, rather than basalt, dominates the dry land of earth.) Of course, on earth, all those environments host much microbial life—something not found thus far on Mars. “Because we've been able to study them [i.e. environments like this] on earth,” says Schmidt, “we know that these clays form in neutral environments and in relatively benign conditions.”

Unlike much of the rock on Mars, the mineral content of the rock in Yellowknife Bay is low in sulfate. High sulfate content would suggest a salty, acidic past. Therefore, the low sulfate content suggests the milieu created by these chemicals with the addition of water would have been a fairly neutral, freshwater, life-friendly environment.1

Organics: Ephemeral Or Never There?

The next phase in the quest for Martian life will involve a diligent search for organics. Organic (carbon-containing) molecules are produced in abundance by living things, but some can also be produced in the absence of them. Organic compounds can act as a food source for microbes. Organic molecules—if any were ever there—might have been preserved by binding to the clay surfaces in the mudstone sediment that makes up Yellowknife Bay. Thus, if organics are found, they might indicate that life was once there, but not necessarily.

Organics are easily destroyed, however. If they ever were there, they could have been oxidized by highly reactive perchlorates or destroyed by the high surface radiation on Mars. Thus, if life ever existed on Mars, traces of it in the form of persistent organic compounds might or might not remain.

What Would Martian Life Mean?

Evolutionists maintain that life can evolve from chemicals and water whenever conditions are right, given enough time for random processes to operate. Scientists associated with the project, using the same unverifiable worldview-based assumptions that they use when dating rocks on earth, believe that Mars provided such a habitable environment (e.g., a lake on Mars), billions of years ago. They hope to find signs of ancient life and compare the supposedly successful evolution of life on earth to the apparent extinction of life on Mars.

Nothing ever observed in science has shown that molecules-to-life evolution ever has or could happen. Those who deny our Creator’s eyewitness account of the origin of life and all things, as recorded in the Bible, assume life must have evolved simply because life exists, not because the science shows how it could have happened through evolution.

Many assume that finding life on Mars would lend support or even proof to the idea of molecules-to-man evolution. But that is not the case. If life or conclusive evidence of extinct life is ever found on Mars, the existence of life there would no more prove that evolution happened than the existence of life on earth does.

Even on earth (so wonderfully suited for life), there is no known mechanism by which life could have evolved from nonliving elements, nor any evidence that it did. Evolutionists eager to explain the existence of life apart from a Creator simply assume that, in violation of the observable laws of biology, life with the vast array of complex genetic information present in even the simplest life forms evolved through natural random purposeless processes. Thus, if evidence of past life on Mars were to be found, it would in no way support the concept of molecules-to-man evolution.

The Bible does not say whether God created life on any other planets, but the Bible does tell us that God created all life on earth during the first six days of Creation Week, the same week in which He created the rest of the universe, about 6,000 years ago. Discovery of water, a lake, and even life on Mars—past or present—would not disprove or undermine that biblical truth, which is the eyewitness testimony of God. If signs of life show up on Mars, then we will simply know that God also decided to create life there.

And Don’t Miss . . .

  • This past week we considered just how old some salty water was, watched crows play mind games , and discussed how plants and pollen got where they did in the fossil record, meaning some are not older, just deeper.
  • This coming week, we’ll see what some new techniques can tell us about human ancestry, as well as why that very thing is important. And who knows what else will be in the News?

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Footnotes

  1. While earth has microbial life forms capable of living in a variety of extreme conditions, most organisms thrive in less extreme environments. Back