Recent aqueous environments in Martian impact craters: an astrobiological perspective
The discovery of gullies and debris aprons raises the question of the existence of aqueousenvironments on Mars in recent geological times and its astrobiological implications. Three cases of such environments are surveyed at MOC high resolution in the E-Gorgonum chaos and Newton and Hale craters. The regional setting of these craters suggests that the mechanisms of aquifer destabilization, flow discharge, and gully formation in these three cases result from local geological triggers that can include impact cratering, and tectonic processes, rather than climate or insolation factor. We take as a working hypothesis that microbial life appeared on Mars in ancient geological times, probably in a geothermal environment but potentially evolving via infrared detection systems to give photosynthetic communities under the selective pressure of energetic solar radiation. We hypothesize that some microbial communities could have survived underground in either dormant or active state, or that their biomolecules could be preserved either frozen or desiccated in the subsurface beneath the upper oxidized zone. We assess the known environmental constraints for life and what type of potential habitats are provided in these three craters by aquifer discharges using comparison with terrestrial analogues and their associated microbial communities. These environments include: (1) the release of water on a dry crater floor in E-Gorgonum and the possibility for microorganisms and preserved biomolecules to be flushed out and mixed in with the sediment exposed at the surface; (2) the evidence of a recent lacustrine episode in the Newton crater with analogy to Antarctic Dry Valley lakes; (3) the exposure on the floor of Hale crater of material from a regional subsurface that is likely to have retained traces of one of the oldest martian bodies of water recognized to date (Parker et al. 2000) in the Argyre basin. We show how the water in Argyre (∼3.8 billion years ago (Gya) was likely to have been alterated by hydrothermal processes and how the subsequent formation of the 150-km Hale crater on the northern ring of Argyre generated hydrothermal pumping. This accounts for the anomalously high location of the springs on the crater crests today with respect to the rest of the regional subsurface distribution. Finally, we envision current impact cratering as a factor for destabilizing aquifers on Mars today, thus creating new environments. We analyze the implications of impacts for two geological types of rock units that could harbor traces of life. As a result, we compare the potential of astrobiological exploration of crater floors, rims, and ejecta on future missions to Mars.
Authors: Cabrol, Nathalie A., Wynn-Williams, David D., Crawford, David A., Grin, Edmond A.