Life on Mars.
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Astronomy's white whale.
Scientists have found yet another clue as to where it may have once existed.
Researchers examining images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have uncovered "massive" hydrothermal deposits in the planet's southern hemisphere, likely remnants of the same volcanic-activity-plus-water cocktail that provided the ingredients for early life on Earth.
"Even if we never find evidence that there's been life on Mars, this site can tell us about the type of environment where life may have begun on Earth," Paul Niles of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston announced in a press release marking the discovery.
The deposits are roughly 3.7 billion years old, according to researcher estimates.
Because Earth's crust is constantly shifting, it's virtually impossible to find parts of our planet containing evidence of the early primordial soup party that likely paved the way for the rest of us to evolve.
A visualization of how deep the water most likely was in Mars' Eridania basin, where the deposits were found. Image via NASA.
Having similar environments to study on another, slightly maroon-er planet just down the cosmic road from us could be a boon for researchers, whether or not they ever dig up Martian skeletons (or, far more likely, bacterial fossils).
Such environments contain ideal conditions for "life that doesn't need a nice atmosphere or temperate surface, but just rocks, heat and water," according to Niles.
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launched in 2005 in an effort to determine if water covered Mars' surface long enough for life to emerge.
Since entering orbit around the planet the following year, the probe has photographed craters full of ice, polar avalanches, and widespread mineral deposits similar to the one just found.
Thanks to the orbiter's continued good health, the search for evidence that life once walked (swam? slithered? cilia-paddled?) the red planet goes on — with a new signpost on the trail.
Could a breakthrough be imminent?
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You never know with Mars.