In an ancient, barren lake bed on Mars, NASA‘s Curiosity rover made an unexpected discovery: opal gemstones glittering among the endless red dirt and rock. More than just attractive Martian decor, opals are rich in water, opening the door for a potential water source on Mars in the future.
Until recently, scientists assumed Mars was a “dead” planet, its potential for life lost long ago. Now, however, NASA is collecting evidence to suggest the Red Planet could support life in the not-so-distant future.
The latest discovery was in Mars’ Gale Crater, at the bottom of which the Curiosity rover spotted a strange glint in the dust. Upon closer inspection, scientists realized they were opals, providing evidence that water and rock have interacted beneath the surface far more recently than they thought.
Though Mars’ past remains murky, new discoveries such as opals support the theory that microbial life once flourished on the now-desolate planet. Water is a key factor in determining the potential for extraterrestrial life, as water, along with an energy source and stable environment, is essential for supporting life as we know it.
Because opal’s primary ingredients are water and silica, it’s possible that the mineral could one day be harvested for the water stored inside. This would not only change the history of Mars as we know it but provide a water source for future crewed missions.
Water-Rich Opal Suggests Mars Could Be Habitable Beneath the Surface
Water no longer flows across the Martian surface, and even if it did, the amount of radiation on Mars’ surface makes it inhospitable to the creatures of Earth (including humans). This forced scientists to look deeper for answers, scouring Mars’ geology in search of any sign of water. And in the subsurface fractures of the Crater, they found it.
Not only do opals glitter inside the fractures, holding the promise of water inside, but the darker environment is far better protected from the intense radiation on Mars’ surface.
“Our new analysis of archival data showed striking similarity between all of the fracture halos we’ve observed much later in the mission,” lead study author Travis Gabriel, a research physicist at the U.S. Geological Survey, said in a statement. “Seeing that these fracture networks were so widespread and likely chock-full of opal was incredible.”
“Given the widespread fracture networks discovered in Gale Crater, it’s reasonable to expect that these potentially habitable subsurface conditions extended to many other regions of Gale Crater as well, and perhaps in other regions of Mars,” Gabriel continued. “These environments would have formed long after the ancient lakes in Gale Crater dried up.”
Should Curiosity find more opals, future astronauts who explore Mars could have a significant water source. A 1-meter fracture “could house roughly 1.5 gallons of water in the top foot of the surface,” scientists explained.