Curiosity Rover Finds Conditions Suited for Ancient Mars Life

This image from NASA's Curiosity rover shows the first sample of powdered rock extracted by the rover's drill. The image was taken after the sample was transferred from the drill to the rover's scoop. Photo Credit: JPL/NASA

This image from NASA’s Curiosity rover shows the first sample of powdered rock extracted by the rover’s drill. The image was taken after the sample was transferred from the drill to the rover’s scoop. Photo Credit: JPL/NASA

NASA’s Curiosity rover has scored several remarkable successes since touching down in the vast, yawning bowl of Mars’ 96-mile-wide Gale Crater. The $2.5 billion, six-wheeled vehicle made landfall on the surface of the Red Planet last August, with the aid of a revolutionary “Sky Crane,” and almost immediately began exploring its desolate surroundings. It has performed the first X-ray diffraction analysis of a soil sample on another world and recently drilled its first rock specimen. Yet its most dramatic discoveries may lie just around the corner, for NASA yesterday released details of tantalizing new results which hint at a suitable environment for microbial life in Mars’ ancient past.

The possibility of life on the Red Planet—whether in the present or in the millions of years ago—has exerted a strong tug on humanity for more than a century, although five decades of robotic exploration have done little to reveal any “smoking gun” proof. Last November, NASA’s announcement of an embargoed news conference to discuss the progress of the Curiosity mission provoked a flurry of public and media speculation that traces of microbial life had been found. The space agency’s assertion to the contrary, and President Barack Obama’s somewhat glib remark that NASA should advise him immediately if Martian microbes are found, has done little to dissuade proponents of life on the planet.

Curiosity's destination for its first drilling was this patch of veined, flat-lying rocks. Its discoveries have provided the most tantalizing evidence yet for the existence of ancient microbial life on Mars. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL

Curiosity’s destination for its first drilling was this patch of veined, flat-lying rocks. Its discoveries have provided the most tantalizing evidence yet for the existence of ancient microbial life on Mars. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL

Five weeks ago, on 8 February, the drill on Curiosity’s robotic arm bored a 2.5-inch hole into a sedimentary rock named in honor of former Mars Science Laboratory Deputy Project Manager John Klein, who died in 2011, and extracted powdery material from its interior. The rock lies about one third of a mile to the west of Bradbury Landing, where the rover touched down, and occupies a site thought to represent the end of an ancient river system or an intermittently wet lake bed. Moreover, the site is notable in that its ancient conditions were not harshly oxidizing, acidic, or extremely salty. By extension, such an environment may have provided the chemical energy and other favorable conditions for microbes. It became clear that the region boasted elevated levels of calcium, sulfur, and hydrogen, and the presence of vein-like features and nodules was strongly suggestive that multiple periods of wet conditions may have been involved in their formation. After extracting material from John Klein, the sample was sieved and examined by the rover’s Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) and Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instruments.

2012 saw NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity begin an epic two-year mission of exploration on the Red Planet. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

2012 saw NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity begin an epic two-year mission of exploration on the Red Planet. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Their ongoing work has borne surprising fruit. Evidence of sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and carbon—several key chemical ingredients for life—were detected in the powder. “A fundamental question for this mission is whether Mars could have supported a habitable environment,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. “From what we now know, the answer is yes.” David Blake, principal investigator for CheMin at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., added that upwards of 20 percent of the sample is composed of clay minerals, indicating a product of the reaction of relatively fresh water with igneous minerals, such as olivine, which was also found.

Researchers were initially puzzled to find a mixture of oxidized, less-oxidized, and even non-oxidizer chemicals providing an energy gradient similar to the sort that Earth-based microbes exploit in order to survive. This partial oxidation was hinted when the drill sample was revealed to be gray, rather than red. “The range of chemical ingredients we have identified in the sample is impressive, and it suggests pairings such as sulfates and sulfides that indicate a possible chemical energy source for micro-organisms,” explained Paul Mahaffy, SAM principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Further investigation is expected to expand the picture of Mars’ wet past significantly, and MSL Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., noted that the Curiosity “mission of discovery and exploration” is certain to make “many more exciting discoveries … in the months and years to come.”

 

7 comments to Curiosity Rover Finds Conditions Suited for Ancient Mars Life

  • The significance of this discovery, even if life never existed on Mars, is that the chemical building blocks necessary for life are indeed out there and commonplace and will eventually be found. Curiosity has put to rest the notion that “we are alone.” This is astounding! Congratulations to all who made this mission a continued success. The best is yet to come.

  • Tracy

    I listened and was amazed at the possiblity of life on the planet presently….Also a little scared as the scientists speculated a real scenario in which these inorganics plus the CO2 could allow a mircorganism feed off the rocks. Also their cellular structure could find a way to process the constant radiation that blankets the planet…So when we do land …We might just be one tasty snack after all…

  • The better things are for humans on mars the more the syfy channel is going to take over.

    Mars is going to have the mineral wealth for industry and become a new home for mankind, but “are we going to hurt the bugs or are they going to hurt us” will be the cry of the ultra sensitive.

    It’s a planet. We aren’t going to be able to hurt it and with scientists on the ground we will learn more in a day then all the robots will in a lifetime.

    We have rock eating bacteria here on earth. That’s where we got the idea. We survive them here. We can survive them on mars.

    What was that good advice for men I once heard? Oh yeah… “Don’t get your panties in a twist.”

    • Tracy

      Ken,
      Don’t get me wrong….I just remember the problem on the MIR space Station when they had a problem with a microbe that muted in space due to radiation levels that ate the metal electronic components and were only able to “control” the problem by periodically venting the entire space station …You know put on space suites and open the doors…Rather than be the first person on mars I will want to be the second one…

  • Ironbob

    Why are we spending so much money on this. Can’t the Enterprise just beam a couple of people down on the surface with shovels?

  • Tracy

    Ken,
    I checked out your link…Pretty in depth analysis and very understandable ..except I missed the revenue componet of Mars industry production…How does selling the land and to who generate income?