Mars Rover Finds Conditions Once May Have Supported Life

A Martian rock sample tested by Curiosity, the NASA rover that landed on the planet seven months ago, contains clay minerals suggesting conditions on Mars may have once supported living microbes, the U.S. space agency said.

The Rover identified sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon -- some of the key ingredients for life -- in powder drilled last month out of a sedimentary rock near an ancient stream bed, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said in a statement. The sample was collected at a site a few hundred yards away from where the rover found evidence in September of an ancient stream bed.

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

The ancient environment was wet and not overly oxidizing, acidic or salty, providing conditions for life to exist, John Grotzinger, a member of the rover project team, said during a news conference. In addition, the substances identified in the powder could have sustained organisms, he said.

“Very primitive organisms, they can derive basic energy from feeding on rocks,” Grotzinger said. The team hasn’t discovered evidence of life, just that the conditions for life may have existed in the ancient environment surveyed by the rover.

Gale Crater

The bedrock where Curiosity drilled lies in a network of channels descending from the rim of so-called Gale Crater. The hole drilled by the rover, the first ever by a robot probe, measured 0.63 inches (1.6 centimeters) wide and 2.5 inches deep. An additional drilled sample will be used to confirm the results, NASA said.

Curiosity arrived on Mars in August after a 352 million-mile (563 million-kilometer) journey and a subsequent plunge through the planet’s atmosphere that was dubbed “7 Minutes of Terror.” Scientists running the $2.5 billion mission are trying to determine if Mars once had an environment capable of sustaining life.

Starting in 1976, Viking landers sent by NASA to Mars found geological features such as river valleys, grooves carved into rock and stream networks that typically form from large amounts of water and suggested that rain may have once fallen there.

The Spirit and Opportunity rovers that preceded Curiosity have demonstrated water flowed on the surface and soaked the ground. Spirit and Opportunity also measured minerals in rocks and soils.

Curiosity was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on Nov. 26, 2011.

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