Science Magazine Names Mars Discovery Breakthrough of the Year

Dec 16, 2004
Science magazine names Mars discovery Breakthrough of the Year

Science magazine has chosen the discoveries of NASA's Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission as Breakthrough of the Year in its Dec. 17 edition, published today.
The principal scientific investigator for the mission's twin-rover science program is Steve Squyres, professor of astronomy at Cornell University, assisted by a large team of researchers, 28 of them at Cornell, including 15 students. The mission is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Before leaving Endurance Crater, Opportunity roverХs panoramic camera, or Pancam, captured this view of "Burns Cliff" at the base of the southeastern portion of the inner wall of the crater. The view, processed and calibrated in CornellХs MarsLab, is a composite of 46 different images, each acquired in seven different Pancam filters. (Cornell)

The journal, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says that its annual top honor is awarded for the mission's discovery of evidence for the prolonged presence of potentially life-supporting, salty, acidic water on the planet's surface.

"For a time, it seems, early Mars was a watery, habitable place," the magazine says.

Says Squyres: "All of us on the MER project team have been working so hard on this for so long that it's really difficult for us to judge the significance of our work -- we're too close to it, and the results are too new. But it's very gratifying to hear that others in the science community see significance in what we've found."

The Mars discoveries by the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which bounced down on opposite sides of the planet last January, lead nine other research advances that make up Science' s list of the top 10 scientific developments of 2004, chosen for "their profound implications for society and the advancement of science," according to the magazine.

The magazine's lead article on the rovers, "On Mars, A Second Chance for Life" by Richard Kerr, begins: "Inanimate, wheeled, one-armed boxes roaming another planet have done something no human has ever managed: They have discovered another place in the universe where life could once have existed." It continues: "The two Mars rovers [Spirit in Gusev Crater and Opportunity in Meridiani Planum] confirmed what many Mars scientists have long suspected: Long ago, enough water pooled on the face of Earth's neighbor long enough to allow the possibility of life."

The article notes that although Viking missions provided "tantalizing hints" almost 30 years ago, "Mars scientists could never be sure whether the water-carved valleys, channels and gullies that they saw through orbiting cameras implied the prolonged presence of surface water.

"The Mars rovers have now put a bound on the water debate."

Although the Mars rover mission is not designed to look for life, but to look for evidence of whether conditions were once right for life, it does have the goal of seeking rocks that were formed in liquid water. From these, mission scientists can say not just that liquid water was on Mars but what the environmental conditions were like and whether they would have been suitable for life. And, as Squyres has noted, do the minerals that were formed have the capability to preserve evidence of former life for long periods of time?

The record that Opportunity's instruments found in the rocks in the rover's landing site, dubbed Eagle crater, the Science article notes, "turned out to be about salt, an end product of the water weathering of rock, rather than the expected water-altered minerals." (This discovery was made before the rover drove to and entered the large crater dubbed Endurance for a six-month sojourn, from which it has just emerged.)

As the article explains, the Eagle outcrop is up to 40 percent salts, mostly magnesium and calcium sulfates. And the presence of the mineral jarosite suggests that the water was quite acidic. Acid water leached salts from the rock and flowed across "a shallow sea, or perhaps a vast puddle." When the water evaporated, it left the salts and dirt behind. The salty sea, or puddles, "appear to have spanned more than 300,000 square kilometers of Meridiani Planum," the article says.

Source: Cornell University

Explore further: Cassini watches mysterious feature evolve in Titan sea

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Water in the solar system predates the Sun

Sep 25, 2014

Water was crucial to the rise of life on Earth and is also important to evaluating the possibility of life on other planets. Identifying the original source of Earth's water is key to understanding how life-fostering ...

Mars mission opens India for space business (Update)

Sep 24, 2014

India celebrated putting a spacecraft into orbit around Mars on Wednesday, hoping the rare feat will show the world it is open for business in space exploration and inspire a new generation of homegrown scientists ...

Why is everyone vying for a piece of Mars?

Sep 24, 2014

The red planet is about to welcome a new visitor: India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) started orbiting Mars on September 24. But MOM is not the only new kid in town. The American MAVEN explorer arrived at ...

Who are the two new arrivals at Mars?

Sep 24, 2014

As I write this, a team of engineers and scientists will be nervously watching the clock (in fact they are probably in their beds not sleeping). They are waiting for the time when the Mars Orbiter Mission ...

Coronal mass ejections at Mars

Sep 24, 2014

Looking across the Mars landscape presents a bleak image: a barren, dry rocky view as far as the eye can see. But scientists think the vista might once have been quite different. It may have teemed with water ...

New milestone in the search for water on distant planets

Sep 24, 2014

Astronomers have found water vapor in the atmosphere of a planet about four times bigger than Earth, in the constellation Cygnus about 124 light years - or nearly 729 trillion miles - from our home planet. ...

Recommended for you

Cassini watches mysterious feature evolve in Titan sea

14 hours ago

(Phys.org) —NASA's Cassini spacecraft is monitoring the evolution of a mysterious feature in a large hydrocarbon sea on Saturn's moon Titan. The feature covers an area of about 100 square miles (260 square ...

How small can galaxies be?

21 hours ago

Yesterday I talked about just how small a star can be, so today let's explore just how small a galaxy can be. Our Milky Way galaxy is about 100,000 light years across, and contains about 200 billion stars. Th ...

MOM eyes the limb of Mars after historic arrival

22 hours ago

India's maiden interplanetary voyager, the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) has transmitted a breathtaking new image eyeing the limb of Mars and its atmosphere against the blackness of space.

User comments : 0