Ancient Mars is now considered to have had an environment somewhat similar to that of Earth in terms of the existence of large bodies of water, a wide range of surface oxidation states, an active dynamo and associated magnetic field, magmatism and tectonism which includes mountain building and basin formation, and appearances of variety of chemical components potentially building blocks of life. Similar to habitable Earth, ancient Mars included hydrological cycling among the atmosphere, ocean, and landmass (southern cratered highlands), and plate tectonism cannot be ruled out. Endogenic activities have continued until even very recently, and recent water-related geological features indicate prolonged existence of aquifer systems, where habitable environments may exist for a significant period of time. Occasional releases of volatiles from such aquifer systems may ultimately account for the detection of methane by the Curiosity rover in the Gale crater and the inconclusive result (i.e., not unambiguous denial) of metabolism-detection instrument onboard Viking landers. Unequivocal evidence of the existence of subsurface aquifers or extant endogenic activity is, however, still lacking possibly due to the existence of homogeneous regolith materials covering the surface of Mars. Also, even if a habitable environment exists at depth, accessing the environment by a spacecraft (either a lander or a rover) has been considered to be challenging especially because such an environment has been generally thought to exist more than several kilometers below the Martian surface. Recent findings of a recurring slope lineae (RSL) point to traces of possible seasonal liquid water flows along slopes, findings of which will likely change the above prevailing view; some of these features might result from the partial discharges from an aquifer. In other words, RSLs might provide a natural bridge between a subsurface aquifer and the surface accessible by a rover. Thus, subsurface structures near such features become prime targets to be explored through future missions. Once the presence of ground water is confirmed, especially an aquifer, mapping and characterizing the distribution of subsurface water would significantly help address the ever-important question of whether life exists on Mars.
Given this view, we have selected possible landing sites for a future landing mission to detect life on Mars. Our selection is based on the possibility of the existence of near-surface water and recent geological and hydrological activities; specifically areas with (1) a higher possibility of releases of volatiles, (2) a relatively high water activity (Aw>0.6), (3) a relatively higher maximum environmental temperature (T>250K), and (4) an existence of gradients of free energy. We propose Melas Chasma in Valles Marineris as a prime candidate because of its long-term water enrichment and energy conditions as evidenced through it: (1) comprising confirmed recurring slope lineae (RSL); (2) being the widest and deepest part of the Valles Marineris and thus a major catchment basin of Mars since its formation; (3) being connected to the outflow channels; (4) possible fog for at least part of a Martian day; (5) containing Interior Layered Deposits (ILDs) which comprise various sulfates deposits, as well as phyllosilicates among the canyon units, both of which are suggestive of abundant past water; (6) comprising a volcanic field in its southeast part; and (7) being cut by deep-seated basement structures that served as conduits for the migration of both groundwater and heat. We also propose Tharsis/Elysium Corridor region as among the best candidates, which shows evidence of long-lived water enrichment and recent geologic activity.
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