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Ancient lake system at Gale crater
Since 2012, the Curiosity rover has been diligently studying rocky outcrops on Mars, looking for clues about past water, climate, and habitability. Grotzinger et al. describe the analysis of a huge section of sedimentary rocks near Gale crater, where Mount Sharp now stands (see the Perspective by Chan). The features within these sediments are reminiscent of delta, stream, and lake deposits on Earth. Although individual lakes were probably transient, it is likely that there was enough water to fill in low-lying depressions such as impact craters for up to 10,000 years. Wind-driven erosion removed many of these deposits, creating Mount Sharp.
Remote observational data suggest that large bodies of standing water existed on the surface of Mars in its early history. This would have required a much wetter climate than that of the present, implying greater availability of water on a global basis and enhanced potential for global habitability. However, based on assumptions of a vast water inventory and models of atmospheric erosion, theoretical studies suggest a climate that was wetter but not by enough to sustain large lakes, even in depressions such as impact craters.
The Mars Science Laboratory mission’s rover, Curiosity, provides the capability to test hypotheses about Mars’s past climate. The focus of the mission is the exploration of a ~5-km-high mountain, Aeolis Mons (informally known as Mount Sharp), located near the center of the ~140-km-wide Gale impact crater. Mount Sharp is underlain by hundreds of meters of sedimentary rock strata deposited ~3.6 billion to 3.2 billion years ago. These sediments accumulated in aqueous environments, recording the history of Mars’s ancient climate. Because of Curiosity’s ability to study these strata where they are exposed near the base of Mount Sharp, we can directly test the hypothesis that large impact craters were capable of accumulating and storing water as lakes for substantial periods of time.
Over the course of 2 years, Curiosity studied dozens of outcrops distributed along a ~9-km transect that also rose ~75 m in elevation. Image data were used to measure the geometry and grain sizes of strata and to survey the textures associated with sediment deposition and diagenesis. Erosion of Gale’s northern crater wall and rim generated gravel and sand that were transported southward in shallow streams. Over time, these stream deposits advanced toward the crater interior, transitioning downstream into finer-grained (sand-sized), southward-advancing delta deposits. These deltas marked the boundary of an ancient lake where the finest (mud-sized) sediments accumulated, infilling both the crater and its internal lake basin. After infilling of the crater, the sedimentary deposits in Gale crater were exhumed, probably by wind-driven erosion, creating Mount Sharp. The ancient stream and lake deposits are erosional remnants of superimposed depositional sequences that once extended at least 75 m, and perhaps several hundreds of meters, above the current elevation of the crater floor. Although the modern landscape dips northward away from Mount Sharp, the ancient sedimentary deposits were laid down along a profile that projected southward beneath Mount Sharp and indicate that a basin once existed where today there is a mountain.
Our observations suggest that individual lakes were stable on the ancient surface of Mars for 100 to 10,000 years, a minimum duration when each lake was stable both thermally (as liquid water) and in terms of mass balance (with inputs effectively matching evaporation and loss of water to colder regions). We estimate that the stratigraphy traversed thus far by Curiosity would have required 10,000 to 10,000,000 years to accumulate, and even longer if overlying strata are included. Though individual lakes may have come and gone, they were probably linked in time through a common groundwater table. Over the long term, this water table must have risen at least tens of meters to enable accumulation of the delta and lake deposits observed by Curiosity in Gale crater.
The landforms of northern Gale crater on Mars expose thick sequences of sedimentary rocks. Based on images obtained by the Curiosity rover, we interpret these outcrops as evidence for past fluvial, deltaic, and lacustrine environments. Degradation of the crater wall and rim probably supplied these sediments, which advanced inward from the wall, infilling both the crater and an internal lake basin to a thickness of at least 75 meters. This intracrater lake system probably existed intermittently for thousands to millions of years, implying a relatively wet climate that supplied moisture to the crater rim and transported sediment via streams into the lake basin. The deposits in Gale crater were then exhumed, probably by wind-driven erosion, creating Aeolis Mons (Mount Sharp).