Dust drilled from a Martian rock confirms that conditions on the Red Planet once included all the ingredients for life. The chemical menu included everything a hungry microbe might have needed when water flowed across the planet’s surface.
The findings announced earlier today by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration arose after a detailed analysis of dust recovered from an ancient rock drilled into by the Curiosity rover, currently making the rounds on the Martian surface.
The rover drilled into the rock and dropped the resultant dust grains into its Sample Analysis at Mars and Chemistry and Mineralogy instruments. It returned signs of sulphur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon, all key chemical ingredients for life.
Whether Mars could have supported an environment suited to life is a “fundamental” question for the Curiosity mission, said Nasa ’s Michael Meyer. “From what we know now, the answer is yes.”
Curiosity rover was touring an ancient stream bed below Gale Crater last month and used its drill to bore into a rock. The Yellowknife Bay region was either the end of a river system or a shallow lake bed and the rock was mudstone containing clay minerals and other chemicals, Nasa said.
They form in the presence of water with minerals in the river or lake sediments. The chemical analysis conducted by Curiosity showed this water course was neither acidic nor harshly salty.
The mix on earth provides a varied diet for microbes that can use these elements for energy production. If microbes were present when the water and chemicals were then life could have been supported.
The scientists also revealed a new “grey” Mars, one less oxidised than the red dust that typifies the Martian surface. It was “a very ancient, but strangely new grey Mars where conditions once were favourable for life”, said John Grotzinger, Mars science Laboratory project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
Curiosity will remain in the Yellowknife Bay area for many more weeks before striking off to explore the central mound of Gale Crater.
The six-wheel rover has been parked for more than a week at a sand dune where it has been busy scooping up soil, putting it in a bucket with one of its mechanical spades, then overturning the bucket onto the martian surface and sprinkling a little water over the sand to keep the sand castle turrets together.
Mission scientist Joel Salmons expected Curiosity to build the “biggest frickin’ sand castle Mars has ever seen.”
“The martian soil is very fine but when we get Curiosity to sprinkle water over it, the sand castle turrets stay in place.”
The car-size rover will leave a sand castle legacy from earth on the Mars surface that some say may last thousands of years.
“We just hope there is no gust of wind or anything. I don’t even know if Mars has wind, jeez beats the heck out of me. I’m a scientist and I don’t know that,” one of the Mars rover operators revealed.