There could have been life on Mars. It doesn't sound like much. Could have been. But for those looking for "signs of life," the Mars Curiosity rover has delivered some very promising news in the guise of a rock sample. NASA has discovered clay.
According to a March 12 NASA press release, a rock sample taken by Curiosity "shows ancient Mars could have supported living microbes."
Of course, we already know that modern Mars doesn't support life, at least on the surface. Mars is a cold and barren expanse of red dust and meteor impact craters. With no protective radiation belts, it is also irradiated daily. But what if...? Could Mars still be home to life underground? Or even if that is too much to ask, could it have once been home to living organisms?
The latter of those two questions has now been answered...
"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, stated in the release. "From what we know now, the answer is yes."
The Mars Curiosity rover drilled into sedimentary rock in an area very near to an ancient stream bed in Gale Crater last month. With data derived from the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instruments, NASA was able to determine that the rock was composed of fine-grained mudstone containing clay, sulfate minerals, and other chemicals. Its clay content is about 20 percent. The mudstone shows evidence of having once been part of an area that experienced wet conditions numerous times, like a river or an intermittent lake.
The composition of the rock sample, not to mention its gray coloring, surprised scientists, who fully expected a continuation of the Mars' oxidized surface. Instead, the range of geological material found suggests a more blended gradient of chemicals and reactions, far less acidic, oxidized, and/or salty than what is known of Mars and far more conducive toward life, much as is enjoyed by microbes on Earth.
In fact, NASA scientists even think that the water might have been potable.
Curiosity project scientist John Grotzinger put it all in perspective while responding to a reporter's question. According to The Atlantic Wire, he said, "We have found a habitable environment that is so benign and supportive of life, that probably if this water were flowing and you were around, you would have been able to drink it."
However, complex carbon compounds, the components of living things, the clay is not, but it is a step in the right direction.
Because if Mars could have once supported life as we understand it, the Red Planet very well might have. It might still, if we explore deep enough. But barring the ability to dig deeper anytime soon, finding conditions conducive to the emergence and sustainability of life is far more promising than the surface's reflection of unpromising and uncompromisingly harsh conditions.
It lends hope in the search for an answer to that most elusive of questions: Is Earth alone in the universe in its ability to spawn and sustain life?
The Mars findings and NASA press release comes a day after astrobiologists at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom announced that they had found biological microfossils within the fragments of a meteorite that fell to Earth in December in Sri Lanka.
The search for life outside our own planet seems to have become suddenly far more interesting...