Big news is coming from NASA by way of the Curiosity rover about Mars and, more specifically, its ability to support life in the distant past. The discovery: an ancient Martian lake that existed upwards of 3.5 billion years ago that could have supported life as we know it with the strongest evidence in the affirmative yet seen.
So, what of the findings?
According to research published in 6 different scientific journals, Curiosity was able to paint a picture of a life-supporting world by drilling into so-called 'mud stones' that it found on Mars. For the record, mud stones are fine-grained sedimentary rocks that form in calm water, at least here on Earth. By drilling into the rocks, the NASA team was able to not only determine that the rocks formed in water by looking at their chemical composition, but also that they formed in water that could support life.
According to NASA, the shallow ancient lake was about 30 miles long and 3 miles wide . Based on the thickness of the sedimentary deposits, the lake probably existed for at least tens of thousands of years (and possibly much longer) in an on-and-off basis. Additionally, the lack of weathering on Gale Crater's rim suggests that the area was cold when the lake existed, which makes it possible that a layer of ice covered the lake on a permanent or occasional basis, which is still friendly to microbial life.
Speaking on the findings, Sanjeev Gupta of Imperial College London, co-author of one of the research studies, said that “it is exciting to think that billions of years ago, ancient microbial life may have existed in the lake's calm waters, converting a rich array of elements into energy.”
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 has seen its planetary science budget drastically cut in recent years.
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