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article imageDid NASA's Curiosity prove that surface water once ran on Mars?

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By Nancy Houser     Sep 30, 2012 in Science
Pasadena - NASA's Curiosity, a 2,000-pound super-rover, has found proof that water was on Mars, ranging from ankle to waist deep. This is based on images showing what looks like an ancient gravel stream bed, with Curiosity using one contaminated drill bit.
The evidence of water on Mars is not new evidence, as NASA has found previous signs of water on the Red Planet. NASA's rover Spirit had discovered sulfate-rich soil beneath the Martian surface, which suggested an earlier presence of liquid water. Also, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbit probed and found water ice in areas that were far away from the Martian polar caps.
But Curiosity's images of rocks containing ancient stream bed gravel on the Red Planet are the absolute first of a kind. NPR reports that NASA's next step will be to find a good spot to drill into the rock. They will be looking at possible carbon deposits, hopefully to determine whether the water on Mars once supported life.
Curiosity's images of the gravel bed are being studied by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech science team, looking at various shaped stones that are cemented into a layer of conglomerate rock. "This is the first time we're actually seeing water-transported gravel on Mars. This is a transition from speculation about the size of streambed material to direct observation of it," said Curiosity science co-investigator William Dietrich of the University of California, Berkeley.
The stones' shapes and sizes are offering clues to the ancient stream's flow --- its speed and distance. "From the size of gravels it carried, we can interpret the water was moving about 3 feet per second, with a depth somewhere between ankle and hip deep," said Curiosity science co-investigator William Dietrich of the University of Calinia, Berkeley.
Scientific studies have shown that the Mars' rounded rock shapes mean they were transported by a rapid flow of water. The grains are too large to have been moved by the wind. Water and sediment are thought to have flowed down the crater into a geological formation, created by material transported by water. This appears to have been where Curiosity landed, "It's hard to say how long ago this water flowed -- an estimate would be 'thousands to millions of years'," Dietrich said.
"A long-flowing stream can be a habitable environment," said Grotzinger. "It is not our top choice as an environment preservation of organics, though. We're still going to Mount Sharp, but this is insurance that we have already found our first potentially habitable environment."
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NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems
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Finding water on Mars is vital, as it not only unlocks past climate history but also helps mankind understand the evolution of the planets. Because Mars has an atmosphere, finding water on our Red Planet is important; without water, there is no hope that Mars will someday sustain life.
Unfortunately, If the presence of water is found, NASA reports that it could be contaminated by Earth microbes from Curiosity's drill bits. This has been a huge controversary at NASA over the six months; if the contaminated drill bits touched ground where water may have been, the Earth microbes could survive and taint the area.
According to LA Times, NASA has known about the possible contamination of the drill bit box about six months before the rover launched. The bits had originally been sterilized inside a box, to be opened after Curiosity had landed on Mars. The box should never have been opened without knowledge from a NASA contamination scientist ... but it was.
"They shouldn't have done it without telling me. It is not responsible for us not to follow our own rules," reported NASA Planetary Protection Officer Catharine Conley.
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NASA
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On Nov. 1, after learning that the drill bit box had been opened, Conley said she had the mission reclassified to one in which Curiosity could touch the surface of Mars “as long as there is no ice or water.”
Who would have known?
The reason the box was opened in the first place and the drills contaminated is because the engineers were concerned that a rough Mars landing may damage Curiosity and its drill mechanism. Therefore, the box was illegally opened and one bit was mounted in the rover's drill to ensure success. If Curiosity became damaged from its landing, at least one drill bit would be ready; an act which was done without Conley's knowledge until shortly before the launch. By then, it was too late.
Conley's rules for contamination prevention was initially to sterilize any part of Curiosity that would touch the surface of Mars. This included all the drill bits and six of the rover's wheels, to preserve NASA's ability to explore water or ice on the planet --- no matter how remote the chance may be.
"The box containing the bits was unsealed in a near-sterile environment," said David Lavery, program executive solar system exploration at NASA headquarters. "Even so, the breach was enough to alter aspects of the mission and open a rift at NASA between engineers and planetary protection officials."
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