Salt Constructs in Paleo-Lake Basins as High-Priority Astrobiology Targets

Michael S. Phillips, Michael McInenly, Michael H. Hofmann, Nancy W. Hinman, Kimberley Warren-Rhodes, Edgard G. Rivera-Valentín, Nathalie A. Cabrol

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

In extreme environments, microbial organisms reside in pockets with locally habitable conditions. Micro-climates conducive to the persistence of life in an otherwise inhospitable environment—“refugia”—are spatially restricted and can be micro- to centimeters in extent. If martian microbes are preserved in fossil refugia, this presents a double-edged sword for biosignature exploration: these locations will be specific and targetable but small and difficult to find. To better understand what types of features could be refugia in martian salt-encrusted basins, we explore a case study of two terrestrial habitats in salt-encrusted paleo-lake basins (salars): Salar Grande (SG) in the Atacama Desert and Salar de Pajonales (SdP) in the Altiplano Puna plateau of Chile. We review the formation of salt constructs within SG and SdP, which are the features that serve as refugia in those salars, and we explore the connection between the formation of salt constructs at the local scale with the larger-scale geologic phenomena that enable their formation. Our evaluation of terrestrial salars informs an assessment of which chloride basins on Mars might have had a high potential to form life-hosting salt constructs and may preserve biosignatures, or even host extant life. Our survey of martian salars identifies 102 salars in regions with a geographic context conducive to the formation of salt constructs, of which 17 have HiRISE coverage. We investigate these 17 martian salars with HiRISE coverage and locate the presence of possible salt constructs in 16 of them. Salt constructs are features that have may have been continuously habitable for the past ~3.8 Byr, have exceptional preservation potential, and are accessible by robotic exploration. Future work could explore in detail the mechanisms involved in the formation of the topographic features we identified in salt-encrusted basins on Mars to test the hypothesis that they are salt constructs.

Original languageEnglish
Article number314
JournalRemote Sensing
Volume15
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 2023

Keywords

  • Mars
  • Mars analog
  • astrobiology
  • salt habitats

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