No, we're not talking about Martian life being still around today. However, an exceptionally detailed analysis of photos from NASA's Mars Curiosity rover has recently been getting a lot of attention, as one expert believes she has identified evidence of ancient microbial life on the Red Planet.
Identifying signs of life, or at least life-supporting conditions, on Mars has always been one of Curiosity's main missions, since it first set down in the Gale Crater back in 2012. Since then, the rover has taken countless samples and photographs of Martian terrain, even as it made its way to Mount Sharp - where the latest phase of experiments and drilling have begun.
Some early looks at these photographs revealed mysteriously pitted and rippled surfaces on the Red Planet - geological patterns that looks suspiciously just like those seen in prehistoric stone samples found back on Earth.
This patterning, it has been suggested, could have been caused by the ebb and flow of warm oceans on mats of primitive microbial life.
However, as put best by Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center and an associate editor of the journal Astrobiology, low resolution photography isn't exactly enough to reach a scientific consensus.
"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," he said for the journal's supplemental magazine. (Scroll to read on...)
However, he goes on to add that a new study conducted by Nora Noffke, an agrobiologist at Old Dominion University in Virginia, is the most carefully conducted analysis of this sort he has ever seen, earning itself a bit more credence.
The study has since been published in the journal Astrobiology. In it, Noffke applies nearly two decades of ancient microbial and geological study in her assessment of Curiosity images.
"I took a closer look," the study author explained, "meaning I spent several weeks investigating certain images centimeter by centimeter, drawing sketches, and comparing them to data from terrestrial structures."
According to the study, she found that the amount of similarities between things like cracks in the Gillespie Lake outcrop on Mars and a modern microbial mat on Earth are so compelling that it would "be an extraordinary coincidence" if they weren't what hopeful scientists think they are.
Still, McKay added, it's better to be safe than sorry. Holding off conclusions until physical samples can be returned to Earth, potentially as part of the first manned mission to Mars, will be worth the wait.
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