As many of you know, NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover recent drilled into the Martian surface to collect a rock sample for analysis. This was a historic moment—it marked the first ever drill sample collected from the Red Planet. And astoundingly, Curiosity’s rock sample indicates that at one time Mars could have been home to living microbes.
One of the most fundamental questions that the Mars Exploration program hopes to answer (indeed, one of the most fundamental questions that everyone wants answered) is, did Mars ever have a habitable environment? According to the scientists at NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, the answer to this question seems to be a resounding “yes!”—“We have characterized a very ancient, but strangely new ‘gray Mars’ where conditions once were favorable for life,” said John Grotzinger, a Mars Science Laboratory project scientist at the California Institute of Technology.
The powder that Curiosity collected last month was taken from sedimentary rock near an ancient stream bed, which is located in Gale Crater (a site that is located just a few hundred yards from where the rover found an ancient streambed in September 2012). In the Gale Crater rock sample, scientists identified many of the key ingredients for life as we know it: sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and carbon (note: these are the ingredients necessary for life on Earth; other ingredients could be used for different, hereto undiscovered, life forms).
The data collected from the Yellowknife Bay area that the rover is currently exploring reveals that Mars had other favorable conditions for microbes. This ancient wet environment (unlike some other areas on Mars) was not harshly oxidizing, acidic, or extremely salty. Indeed, scientists found a mixture of oxidized, less-oxidized, and even non-oxidized chemicals. Such diversity provides the kind of energy gradient that many microbes exploit to live.
Paul Mahaffy, the principal investigator of the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instruments stated, “The range of chemical ingredients we have identified in the sample is impressive, and it suggests pairings such as sulfates and sulfides that indicate a possible chemical energy source for micro-organisms.”
An additional drilled sample will be used to help confirm these results. Until then, we wait with bated breath. But for now, one thing is certain: There are bound to be a number of exciting discoveries ahead of us in the months and years to come.
Sometimes, maybe not always, but sometimes, the universe is an awesome and inspiring place. Look what we can discover, look what we can do when we try…