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Giant crater on Mars was once a vast lake

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Mars lake
Space   Sufficient time for life to get started and thrive

A giant crater on Mars may have been able to support microbial life for millions of years in the ancient past because it was once a huge lake of water, new results from NASA's Curiosity rover suggest.

Curiosity found evidence for the crater lake on Mars in the 96-mile-wide (154 kilometers) Gale Crater, which the rover has been exploring since its August 2012 touchdown.

Today, Gale Crater is a dry, stark landscape, but in the ancient past, runoff from the crater rim created a lake in which deposited sediments gradually built up Mount Sharp, a mountain that rises about 3.4 miles (5.5 km) high from the crater's center, mission scientists added.

"This lake was large enough it could have lasted millions of years, sufficient time for life to get started and thrive, sufficient time for lake sediments to build up and form Mount Sharp," Michael Meyer, Mars Exploration Program lead scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said.

The origin and evolution of Mount Sharp have puzzled mission scientists since before Curiosity's November 2011 launch. But the rover's recent observations at and near the mountain's base have brought the picture into much clearer focus, researchers said.

At multiple locations, Curiosity noticed beds of sandstone sloping toward Mount Sharp. On Earth, such "inclined beds" are seen at deltas where rivers once emptied into lakes, said Curiosity science team member Sanjeev Gupta of Imperial College London. And that's likely what created the features on Mars, he added.

"These are likely to be quite small, maybe a couple of meters water depth, so very, very small deltas, but certainly clear evidence that we're building out, likely, into a standing body of water," Gupta said.

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