Hexagonal patterns discovered on Mars, which scientists are delighted with: here's why

Dmytro IvancheskulLife
Curiosity finds dirt on Mars cracked into hexagons. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/IRAP/OBOZREVATEL collage

NASA's Curiosity rover has discovered dirt on the surface of the red planet, cracked with hexagonal patterns. This discovery has fascinated Earth-based scientists, but not because they like clear geometric shapes.

The discovery is described in an article published in the journal Nature. According to Talker, the new work suggests that the same conditions that caused the cracks to appear could have been favourable for the emergence of microscopic life on the planet.

One theory of the origin of life on Earth suggests that the constant cycles of wet and dry conditions on land helped assemble the complex chemical building blocks that became the basis for microbial life.

The hexagonal pattern seen by scientists is the first evidence that early Mars experienced cycles of wetness and dryness.

"These specific mud cracks form when wet and dry conditions recur - possibly seasonally," said William Rapin, lead author of the paper from the French Institute for Research in Astrophysics and Planetary Science.

Curiosity is gradually overcoming the sedimentary layers of Mount Sharp, which rises 5 kilometres in Gale Crater. Cracks in the dirt were found in the transition zone between a clay-rich layer and a layer above, enriched with salty minerals called sulfates. As the scientists explain, clay minerals are usually formed in water, while sulphates are formed when water dries.

The minerals that predominate in each zone reflect different eras in the history of Gale Crater. The transition zone is evidence of a period in the history of the red planet when long dry periods prevailed and the lakes and rivers that once filled the crater began to recede.

Scientists note that dirt usually dries out by cracking and forming T-shaped joints. But when water re-enters this dried mud, eventually these T-shaped joints soften and become Y-shaped, forming a hexagonal pattern.

Hexagonal patterns on Mars

The Curiosity data show that hexagonal cracks formed in the transition zone even as new sediment was being deposited. This, according to the researchers, supports the theory that the change in wet and dry conditions was not a one-time event, but persisted over time.

One of Curiosity's instruments confirmed the presence of a strong crust of sulphates along the edges of the cracks. It was this salt crust that strengthened the cracks, making them resistant to erosion. Thanks to this, they have been preserved for billions of years.

"This is the first material evidence that the ancient climate of Mars had such regular, Earth-like cycles of wetness and dryness," Rapin said.

He added that even more importantly, such cycles were beneficial for "molecular evolution that could have led to the emergence of life".

As explained, while water is essential for life, it needs to be carefully balanced, because the conditions that support microbial life are different from the conditions that scientists believe are necessary for the chemical reactions that can lead to life. The key product for such chemical reactions is polymers - in particular nucleic acids, which are considered the chemical bricks of life.

It is the wet-dry cycles that control the concentration of chemicals that feed the fundamental reactions that lead to the formation of polymers.

"For 11 years, we have found a wealth of evidence that microbial life could have existed on ancient Mars. Now the mission has found evidence of conditions that could have favoured the emergence of life," the scientists said.

Earlier, OBOZREVATEL reported that scientists believe they have found evidence of life on Mars. In photos from the red planet, they found millipedes, corals and mushrooms.

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