NASA Curiosity Rover Finds Life-Enabling Basics On Mars

Rock testing shows presence of crucial elements that could once have supported life.

Patience Wait, Contributor

March 13, 2013

3 Min Read

NASA Mars Mission: No Little Green Men -- Yet

NASA Mars Mission: No Little Green Men -- Yet

NASA Mars Mission: No Little Green Men -- Yet (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

Gray-colored rock, clay minerals and mudstone collected by NASA's Curiosity rover suggest the conditions necessary to support life once existed on Mars, according to NASA.

NASA's Mars Exploration Program team on Tuesday revealed the latest details of the rover's ongoing exploration, including their reading of rock samples that were drilled and analyzed by the six-wheeled science lab.

The rover's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instruments tested dust that Curiosity had created from sedimentary rock drilled near an ancient stream bed in an area of Gale Crater it has been exploring since August.

The analysis found carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur, all chemical ingredients that support life. "A fundamental question for this mission is whether Mars could have supported a habitable environment," Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program, said in a NASA statement. "From what we know now, the answer is yes."

[ Curiosity rover overcomes recent computer problems, weather delays. Read more at NASA Curiosity Mars Rover Survives Tough Week. ]

The area of exploration was the end of a river system or one-time lake that could have conditions that were conducive to microbes, according to NASA. The rock sample was comprised of at least 20% clay minerals, said David Blake, the principal investigator for the CheMin instrument. The clay minerals were produced by the reaction of "relatively fresh" water and igneous minerals, said NASA.

A mix of chemicals, ranging from oxidized to non-oxidized, provides the kind of energy gradient that microbes on Earth use. The color of the rock dust sample -- gray rather than red -- provided a clue of partial oxidation. "We have characterized a very ancient, but strangely new 'gray Mars' where conditions once were favorable for life," said John Grotzinger, Mars Science Lab project scientist.

The range of chemical ingredients identified "suggests pairings such as sulfates and sulfides that indicate a possible chemical energy source for micro-organisms," said Paul Mahaffy, principal investigator for the SAM instruments.

While one sample from the Mars surface is suggestive, it doesn't constitute absolute proof that life once existed on the Red Planet. A second rock sample will be analyzed to confirm the results for several of the trace gases.

Curiosity will continue to work in its current vicinity for weeks, then head toward Mount Sharp, a mound in the middle of Gale Crater. Images taken from space have identified exposed layers of clay minerals and sulfate minerals on Mount Sharp. Testing of the layers may reveal more information about the diversity and duration of habitable conditions, NASA scientists said.

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Patience Wait


Washington-based Patience Wait contributes articles about government IT to InformationWeek.

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