Curiosity rover finds conditions once suited for ancient life on Mars

Mar 12, 2013 by Dc Agle
This set of images compares rocks seen by NASA's Opportunity rover and Curiosity rover at two different parts of Mars. On the left is " Wopmay" rock, in Endurance Crater, Meridiani Planum, as studied by the Opportunity rover. On the right are the rocks of the "Sheepbed" unit in Yellowknife Bay, in Gale Crater, as seen by Curiosity. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/MSSS

(Phys.org) —An analysis of a rock sample collected by NASA's Curiosity rover shows ancient Mars could have supported living microbes.

Scientists identified sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon—some of the key chemical ingredients for life—in the powder Curiosity drilled out of a near an ancient stream bed in Gale Crater on the Red Planet last month.

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

Clues to this come from data returned by the rover's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instruments. The data indicate the area the rover is exploring was the end of an ancient river system or an intermittently wet lake bed that could have provided and other favorable conditions for microbes. The rock is made up of a fine-grained mudstone containing clay minerals, sulfate minerals and other chemicals. This ancient wet environment, unlike some others on Mars, was not harshly oxidizing, acidic or extremely salty.

The patch of bedrock where Curiosity drilled for its first sample lies in an ancient network of descending from the rim of Gale Crater. The bedrock also is fine-grained mudstone and shows evidence of multiple periods of , including nodules and veins.

This side-by-side comparison shows the X-ray diffraction patterns of two different samples collected from the Martian surface by NASA's Curiosity rover. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ames

Curiosity's drill collected the sample at a site just a few hundred yards away from where the rover earlier found an ancient streambed in September 2012.

"Clay minerals make up at least 20 percent of the composition of this sample," said David Blake, principal investigator for the CheMin instrument at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

These clay minerals are a product of the reaction of relatively fresh water with igneous minerals, such as olivine, also present in the sediment. The reaction could have taken place within the sedimentary deposit, during transport of the sediment, or in the source region of the sediment. The presence of calcium sulfate along with the clay suggests the soil is neutral or mildly alkaline.

Scientists were surprised to find a mixture of oxidized, less-oxidized, and even non-oxidized chemicals, providing an energy gradient of the sort many microbes on Earth exploit to live. This partial oxidation was first hinted at when the drill cuttings were revealed to be gray rather than red.

"The range of 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," said Paul Mahaffy, principal investigator of the SAM suite of instruments at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

This false-color map shows the area within Gale Crater on Mars, where NASA's Curiosity rover landed on Aug. 5, 2012 PDT (Aug. 6, 2012 EDT) and the location where Curiosity collected its first drilled sample at the "John Klein" rock. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

An additional drilled sample will be used to help confirm these results for several of the trace gases analyzed by the SAM instrument.

"We have characterized a very ancient, but strangely new 'gray Mars' where conditions once were favorable for life," said John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. "Curiosity is on a mission of discovery and exploration, and as a team we feel there are many more exciting discoveries ahead of us in the months and years to come."

Scientists plan to work with Curiosity in the "Yellowknife Bay" area for many more weeks before beginning a long drive to Gale Crater's central mound, Mount Sharp. Investigating the stack of layers exposed on Mount Sharp, where and sulfate minerals have been identified from orbit, may add information about the duration and diversity of habitable conditions.

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User comments : 8

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Shootist
5 / 5 (6) Mar 12, 2013
I have to say "bravo".

I also have to mention the great disdain I have for the place names in use by NASA (and the other scientist/bureaucrats).
Benni
1.7 / 5 (6) Mar 12, 2013
I heard a rumor that the drilling stopped when it struck what was thought to be an aluminum deposit, turns out it was a Budweiser can......LOL
ValeriaT
1 / 5 (4) Mar 12, 2013
Allex
not rated yet Mar 12, 2013
http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl-raw-images/msss/00109/mcam/0109MR0684021000E1_DXXX.jpg)

Oh wow. Another nobody without any credentials and with a lot of photoshop imagination is discovering bullshit on 1 single photo out of thousand. Shocking.
LarryD
1 / 5 (1) Mar 12, 2013
Naa, it's actually a shot of my garden...I've got a path that looks like that...
gwrede
not rated yet Mar 13, 2013

"another interesting photo (enhanced)"

Childish.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
not rated yet Mar 13, 2013
"sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon"

Ah, the famous CHNOPS suite, main constituents of cells. And neutral or slightly alkaline, with different oxidation states (redox chemical energy sources). Add the stream bed water, and you get habitability.

@Allex: What did you say!? Valeria is a well known crackpot around here, with delusions of physics grandeur. It is a rare post that doesn't trigger that, or other pattern recognition dumbosity.

Plenty of credentials right there. =D
LarryD
not rated yet Mar 13, 2013
Okay, you 'in the know' out there. We hear about eveidence of mircrobio systems coming to Earth from space so let's assume that to be true. Shouldn't we assume this happening to the Martian suface too? In addition we would have assume this of Venus, thus providing 3 major planets in the SS capable of supporting life ( as we know it). I guess Venus might be discounted because of its extreme presure, high temp and lack of sunlight reaching the surface but might microbio life from space find a way to adapt?
Then of course there are possibilities like Titan with hydrocarbons and cyano compounds.
What alternative is more probable, life from space, life from space via the other planets or life beginning here on Earth?

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