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by Staff Writers
Washington DC (SPX) Jul 21, 2008
Two studies based on data from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have revealed that the Red Planet once hosted vast lakes, flowing rivers and a variety of other wet environments that had the potential to support life.
One study, published in the July 17 issue of Nature, shows that vast regions of the ancient highlands of Mars, which cover about half the planet, contain clay minerals, which can form only in the presence of water.
Volcanic lavas buried the clay-rich regions during subsequent, drier periods of the planet's history, but impact craters later exposed them at thousands of locations across Mars. The data for the study derives from images taken by the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars, or CRISM, and other instruments on the orbiter.
"The big surprise from these new results is how pervasive and long-lasting Mars' water was, and how diverse the wet environments were," said Scott Murchie, CRISM principal investigator at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.
The clay-like minerals, called phyllosilicates, preserve a record of the interaction of water with rocks dating back to what is called the Noachian period of Mars' history, approximately 4.6 billion to 3.8 billion years ago.
This period corresponds to the earliest years of the solar system, when Earth, the moon and Mars sustained a cosmic bombardment by comets and asteroids.