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Probable mud cracks on Mars point to planet's wet past

NASA scientists continue to collect evidence of ancient water on Mars as the Curiosity rover sees what looks like a series of mud cracks.

Mud cracks on Mars is the most likely explanation for the look of "Old Soaker."

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Everyone knows what mud cracks look like. You might see them in the dirt as the ground dries after a rain, or along a river bank. NASA's Curiosity rover found a patch of ground on Mars that matches that look. NASA describes the scene found at the lower region of Mount Sharp as "slabs of rock cross-hatched with shallow ridges that likely originated as cracks in drying mud."

The Curiosity images, released Tuesday, sure look familiar, like something you'd expect to see in dried mud on Earth. The rock slab under investigation is called "Old Soaker" and it dates back 3 billion years. "If this interpretation holds up, these would be the first mud cracks -- technically called desiccation cracks -- confirmed by the Curiosity mission," NASA says.

NASA's Mars missions have been hot on the trail of evidence of a time when dusty, dry Mars was a much wetter place. Scientists have confirmed the Red Planet was once home to large lakes. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter also found signs of flowing salt water in 2015.

"The ancient lakes varied in depth and extent over time, and sometimes disappeared. We're seeing more evidence of dry intervals between what had been mostly a record of long-lived lakes," Curiosity team member Ashwin Vasavada says.

NASA's researchers are still investigating the possible mud cracks while also using the rover to keep an eye out for similar formations elsewhere on Mars.

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