It's official: ancient Mars could have supported microbial life. That news comes via NASA and a press conference held yesterday by the space agency to announce the latest discoveries made by the Curiosity rover. This discovery comes about 7 months after the rover landed and serves as fulfillment of one of the mission's main objectives: determining whether Mars could have once hosted life.
So, what else of the discovery?
The announcement comes thanks to the result of experiments wherein Curiosity drilled into Martian rocks in order to examine their internal composition. Just over a month ago, Curiosity drilled 2.5 inches (deeper than any other rover) into an outcrop called John Klein using its arm-mounted hammering drill. Curiosity then analyzed the dust for its composition, finding a whole host of life-friendly elements: sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon as well as possible energy sources for this hypothetical life. What does this all mean? Short answer: a wet, neutral-PH environment suitable for life.
Speaking on the discovery, John Grotzinger, chief scientist for the mission, said that "we have found a habitable environment that is so benign and supportive of life that probably — if this water was around and you had been on the planet, you would have been able to drink." Grotzinger then added that the water probably flowed over 3 billion years ago.
Now, while this is big (though not totally unexpected) news, there is one last consideration: these findings do not prove that Mars actually hosted life, but only shown that it could have hosted life.
As for the more ambitious goal of finding complex organic compounds, that has yet to be fulfilled.
For NASA, Curiosity represents the next generation of Mars rovers, serving as a successor to Spirit and Opportunity (landed 2004), which served as successors to Sojourner(landed 1997). Curiosity is due to land in August, 2012, during which it will attempt to discover whether Mars ever was home to/was once suitable for life. The 8 main objectives of the mission are as follows:
1. Determine the nature/amount of organic compounds
2. Identify the building blocks of life as we know it
3. Look for traces of past life
4. Investigate Martian geology
5. Discover how rocks/soils were formed
6. Assess atmospheric evolution
7. Try and understand the current water cycle
8. Identify the surface radiation from the Sun
In terms of what the rover has to offer, it is truly ambitious.
To start with, the rover will be powered nuclear, rather than solar energy like its predecessors, which means that Curiosity will be able to operate year-round. The rover will carry 3 cameras, a laser several spectrometers, a sampling tool, a radiation detector, atmospheric assessment tools, water detector, as well as navigation cameras designed to help the rover act autonomously by helping it avoid hazards on the Martian surface.
For NASA, there is a lot riding on Curiosity, far more tan the mission itself. For starters, Curiosity is set to be the last flagship missionfor the foreseeable future as these most ambitious missions, commonly costing over $1 billion, have been eliminated from NASA's future plans thanks to extensive budget cutsHowever, there is hope within NASA that a successful mission may spur the public to be more interested in planetary science. The hope: greater public support in planetary exploration will spur Congress to allocate more funding for NASA, which is to see its planetary science budget drastically cut for the 2013 fiscal year, and probably the foreseeable future.
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