New discovery by NASA’s Curiosity rover hints at past life on Mars

Since NASA’s rover Curiosity landed on the Red Planet last August, scientist did not expect to find useful evidence regarding the habitability of Mars in the first months of the investigation. However, despite predictions that the rover would not reach pay dirt in order to take samples for many months yet, the team struck lucky when it drilled into a rock sample in an area called Yellowknife Bay, which is thought to be an ancient streambed.

Curiosity’s sample – a small dusting of grey powder – has amazed the team back at NASA, as it contains definitive evidence that Mars was once suited to life, and that had the circumstances been different, that life could have survived on Mars.

By analysing the sample using Curiosity’s on-board chemistry lab, the team was able to determine that the rock is made of 20-30% smectite, which is a clay-like material. With clay, comes water, and indeed smectite is a substance which forms only in the presence of water. The sample shows that the great Red Planet was once home to plentiful, slightly salty water that had the potential to support primitive microbes. The test also revealed that the water was pH neutral, and contained other substances which could have successfully supplied microbes with energy.

Speaking about this remarkable finding, rover project scientist John Grotzinger said: “We have found a habitable environment that is so benign and supportive of life that probably is this water had been around and you had been on the planet, you would have been able to drink it.”

So, if Mars once had the potential to be a planet which could harbour living organisms, why did it not develop like its neighbour, Earth? Scientists believe that billions of years ago, around the same time that the first signs of life were beginning to evolve on Earth, Mars was the home to a plentiful supply of liquid water. But at some point, however, whilst the Earth had a strong atmosphere, Mars dried out, and lost much of its atmosphere. Additionally, Mars’s magnetic field, which protected the planet from DNA-damaging cosmic rays, quickly disappeared, destroying any living organisms which may have existed on the planet, or perhaps preventing life from starting at all.

It is hoped that Curiosity’s findings might help us to understand the origins of life, and help our understanding of how life developed on our own planet. Jeffrey Bada, of the University of California in San Diego, said of the findings “If we could find evidence primitive life got a start of Mars, that could fill in a lot of gaps in our understanding of conditions of early Earth. What we find on Mars won’t be a magic bullet to say ‘Ah! That’s how we formed on Earth!’ But it would give us at least another example of what kind of chemistry we could try and mimic in the laboratory.”

Curiosity will continue its research on Mars, whilst back on Earth, NASA is designing a new rover, based on recommendations from Mars researchers and the current rover’s progress and findings. The next rover is expected to launch in 2020.

Sources include the New Scientist

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