Feeds

Curiosity succeeds – Mars was wet enough for life!

David Bowie still waiting for an answer

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Test results from NASA's Curiosity rover's drilling and chemical analysis of Martian rock show that the Red Planet could have supported life as we know it.

"A fundamental question for this mission is whether Mars could have supported a habitable environment," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program in a statement. "From what we know now, the answer is yes."

At a Tuesday press conference in Washington NASA scientists explained that the rock sample, taken from Yellowknife Bay near Mount Sharp, contains all the elements needed for microbial life, including sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and carbon. It has taken Curiosity seven months and six days since landing to achieve one of its primary missions.

The sample was 20 per cent clay and contained water-rounded stones, indicating that the spot was once covered either permanently or regularly by water. John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory project scientist, said the water would have been neutral, or maybe slightly alkaline, and possibly safe to drink.

"We have characterized a very ancient, but strangely new 'gray Mars' where conditions once were favorable for life," he explained.

The sample also contained a mixture of oxidized, less-oxidized, and even non-oxidized chemicals such as those used by microbes to live on Earth, but NASA is not even close to making the call that Martian microbes are or even were alive, he said. Nevertheless, the test results showed that water had been present, and in conditions suitable for both organic and possible inorganic life, such as silicon-based organisms.

"This is only definitively habitable environment we've ever described and recorded," said David Blake, principal investigator for the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument at NASA's Ames Research Center. "There are other places we could suggest but we haven't measured there."

The CheMin and Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instruments on Curiosity are responsible for the readings, and SAM's principal investigator Paul Mahaffy explained that the processing of the data was still turning up intriguing possibilities.

"We got really excited about seeing a CO2 spike," he said, "but we're still deconvoluting the spectrograph information. There's what look like nitrogen compounds in there and a fair bit of hydrogen chloride, showing chlorine not only as chloromethane but also as hydrochloric acid."

Grotzinger explained that NASA still had a "long row to hoe" before it could look for organic life itself, however. Curiosity will have to drill more sample to make sure the rock drilled isn't a meteorite – although the possibility is slight, since the sample is sedimentary rather than igneous, he said.

Curiosity will then have to test if the chemicals and compounds found are naturally occurring or if they have been produced by inorganic life, he said, which would require more sampling. Only when this data has been cleared can Curiosity begin to analyze it for signs of organics.

"This is a huge scientific question: did Mars have a habitable environment? And now we have an answer," said John Grunsfeld, former astronaut and now associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "We now have the food to imagine a very different Mars from modern times; it makes me want to go there." ®

The Power of One Infographic

More from The Register

next story
World Solar Challenge contender claims new speed record
One charge sees Sunswift travel 500kms at over 100 km/h
SMELL YOU LATER, LOSERS – Dumbo tells rats, dogs... humans
Junk in the trunk? That's what people have
The Sun took a day off last week and made NO sunspots
Someone needs to get that lazy star cooking again before things get cold around here
Boffins discuss AI space program at hush-hush IARPA confab
IBM, MIT, plenty of others invited to fill Uncle Sam's spy toolchest, but where's Google?
Bad back? Show some spine and stop popping paracetamol
Study finds common pain-killer doesn't reduce pain or shorten recovery
Forty-five years ago: FOOTPRINTS FOUND ON MOON
NASA won't be back any time soon, sadly
Jurassic squawk: Dinos were Earth's early FEATHERED friends
Boffins research: Ancient dinos may all have had 'potential' fluff
prev story

Whitepapers

Top three mobile application threats
Prevent sensitive data leakage over insecure channels or stolen mobile devices.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications
Learn about the various considerations for defending mobile applications - from the application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies.
Build a business case: developing custom apps
Learn how to maximize the value of custom applications by accelerating and simplifying their development.