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NASA's Curiosity rover finds life-friendly bonanza on once-watery Mars

December 09, 2013|By Amina Khan
  • The NASA rover Curiosity's measurements of the Martian air found it's mostly made of carbon dioxide with traces of other gases, according to two studies appearing in the Friday issue of the journal Science.
The NASA rover Curiosity's measurements of the… (NASA )

Scientists working on NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission have been somewhat sparing until now when describing exactly how the rocks drilled, gobbled and cooked by the Curiosity rover paint a picture of a life-friendly environment.

Well, no more. In a suite of findings announced Monday, the scientists are painting a vivid picture of Gale Crater: filled with a modest lake of water, rich in the chemical ingredients for life, theoretically able to support a whole Martian biosphere based on Earth-like microbes called chemolithoautotrophs, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“Ancient Mars was more habitable than we imagined,” Caltech geologist John Grotzinger, the mission’s lead scientist, said of the findings described in six papers in the journal Science and at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

If microbial life ever developed, it potentially had anywhere from thousands to tens of millions of years to take hold, the scientists said. That watery window of opportunity seems to exist around 3.6 billion years ago, about the same age of the earliest fossils of microbial life found on Earth.

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If they want to find any sources of organic matter, thanks to some clever manipulation of Curiosity’s inner laboratory, they now know exactly where to look.

“I think it’s a critical turning point in the mission, to accept a much more significant challenge,” Grotzinger said.

Curiosity landed in Gale Crater Aug. 5, 2012, with the goal to search for life-friendly environments at Mt. Sharp, the 3-mile-high mound in the crater’s center whose diverse, clay-rich layers could hold a detailed history of many different habitats hosted in Gale over the eons.

But rather than head straight to Mt. Sharp, the rover took an extended detour to an intriguing spot called Yellowknife Bay, drilling into two rocks, named John Klein and Cumberland. The two rocks have turned up a smorgasbord of elements needed for life, including carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sulfur, nitrogen and phosphorus.

But the rover has thus far been unable to find any organic carbon, which is typically in a hydrogen-loaded molecule that’s accessible to most living things on Earth. That’s because part of its inner lab, the Sample Analysis at Mars suite, works by cooking soil samples to analyze the gases they form -- and this essentially destroys some crucial information.

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