If Mars once contained life, it might have existed in watery oases far beneath the surface, according to a new study analyzing a deep Martian crater holding signs of an ancient lake.

The research, published online Sunday in the journal Nature Geoscience, examined the 57-mile-wide McLaughlin Crater, which at 1.4 miles deep may have been low enough to allow underground water to well up into its bowl.

Though Mars looks like a dry, dusty planet, scientists believe the planet once held enough water that it left signs of streambeds on the surface. If Mars also held organic molecules like carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen, it could have held locations suitable for life. NASA’s Curiosity rover, which landed Aug. 5, is on a mission to search Mt. Sharp in Gale Crater for just such habitable environments.

But perhaps a better place to look for microbial life would be beneath the surface, said study leader Joseph Michalski, a planetary scientist at the National History Museum in London.

“There are a lot of people who think up to half of life on Earth exists as microbes in the subsurface of the planet,” Michalski pointed out.

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-- Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times