Is there fossilized life on Mars? Nora Noffke seems to think so: According to the geologist, rock forms shown in an image taken by the Mars Curiosity Rover illustrate a remarkable similarity to structures created by life on Earth. And while this isn’t concrete proof of life, in the form of a bone or hair strand, it’s still a step closer to answering space scientists’ age-old question.
According to Discovery News, Noffke studied an image taken by the Mars Curiosity Rover of a Gillespie Lake outcrop, which is located in the Yellowknife Bay area of the Gale Crater; the rover arrived at that location on December 17th, 2012, on sol 125 of its mission. Theoretically, the area would be an ideal region for ancient Martian life to have existed: Curiosity has demonstrated in the past that the Red Planet once held water in liquid form, and the Gillepsie region itself is made up of sedimentary sandstone – meaning the now lakebed once indeed boasted surface water.
“I took a closer look, meaning I spent several weeks investigating certain images centimeter by centimeter, drawing sketches, and comparing them to data from terrestrial structures,” Noffke of Old Dominion University in Virginia explained, regarding her process.
After her analysis of the image, she concluded that there were, in fact, striking similarities in morphological structures within the lakebed and terrestrial rocks. And that Gillespie Lake, which has been dated to around 3.7 billion years old, seems to house its own structures that could be attributed to ancient Martian microbes.
It’s important to note, however, that finding evidence which appears to be similar to life, doesn’t necessarily count as definitive proof of life on Mars. Noffke acknowledges this, clarifying, “All I can say is, here’s my hypothesis and here’s all the evidence that I have, although I do think that this evidence is a lot.”
Nevertheless, Noffke, who has 20 years of experience studying microbially induced sedimentary structures, already has found huge support from the scientific community. The planetary scientist in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Chris McKay, explained that the findings may not be definitive proof of life, but they are still the most intense examination of Mars photos he has ever seen.
“I’ve seen many papers that say ‘Look, here’s a pile of dirt on Mars, and here’s a pile of dirt on Earth. And because they look the same, the same mechanism must have made each pile on the two planets.’ That’s an easy argument to make, and it’s typically not very convincing,” McKay said.
“However, Noffke’s paper is the most carefully done analysis of the sort that I’ve seen, which is why it’s the first of its kind published in Astrobiology.”
Nora Noffke’s full Mars fossil analysis can be found in a paper published in the journal, Astrobiology.