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article imageNASA's Mars Curiosity finds ancient conditions suited for life

By JohnThomas Didymus     Mar 12, 2013 in Science
NASA scientists announced today at a press conference that the Curiosity rover has discovered evidence that ancient Mars had the elements scientist believe are essential for supporting life as we know it.
NASA scientists say they have identified in a sample of powdered material that Curiosity's drill obtained from sedimentary rock close to the site of an ancient streambed in the Gale Crater, sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon, the major chemical ingredients for life as we know it here on planet Earth.
According to a statement by John Grotzinger, Mars Science and Laboratory project officer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena Calif., "We have characterized a very ancient, but strangely new 'gray Mars' where conditions once were favorable for life. Curiosity is on a mission of discovery and exploration, and as a team we feel there are many more exciting discoveries ahead of us in the months and years to come."
Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program in Washington, added: "A fundamental question for this mission is whether Mars could have supported a habitable environment. From what we know now, the answer is yes."
NASA explains that Curiosity obtained its first samples from a patch of bedrock close to an ancient network of stream channels descending from the Gale Crater that the rover discovered in September 2012. The bedrock consists of fine-grained mudstone that show evidence of past intermittent wet conditions. The evidence of ancient habitable environment came from data returned by rover's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instruments.
NASA scientists say they were able to determine that the "Yellow Knife Bay" area from which the samples were collected lies at the end of an ancient network of intermittently wet lake beds or ancient water channels where chemical energy and related conditions that can support microbial life existed. According to NASA, the finely-grained mudstone was found to contain clay minerals, sulfate minerals and other chemicals in an ancient wet environment that was not "harshly oxidizing, acidic or extremely salty" like other areas of Mars.
Images compares rocks seen by NASA s Opportunity rover and Curiosity rover at two different parts of...
Images compares rocks seen by NASA's Opportunity rover and Curiosity rover at two different parts of Mars. On the left is " Wopmay" rock, in Endurance Crater, Meridiani Planum, as studied by the Opportunity rover. On the right are the rocks of the "Sheepbed" unit in Yellowknife Bay, in Gale Crater, as seen by Curiosity.
NASA reports that David Blake, principal investigator for the CheMin instruments at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffet Field, Calif., said: "Clay minerals make up at least 20 percent of the composition of this sample."
Scientists said the clay minerals are the result of reactions involving "relatively fresh water" in an environment of neutral and mildly alkaline "gray soil" in contrast to most other parts of the planet consisting of highly oxidized, acidic material from which Mars got its familiar name "Red Planet."
False-color map shows the area within Gale Crater on Mars  where NASA s Curiosity rover landed on Au...
False-color map shows the area within Gale Crater on Mars, where NASA's Curiosity rover landed on Aug. 5, 2012 PDT (Aug. 6, 2012 EDT) and the location where Curiosity collected its first drilled sample at the "John Klein" rock.
Scientists said they were surprised to find in the area conditions similar to those favorable for proliferation of microbes on Earth, consisting of a mixture of oxidized, less-oxidized, and non-oxidized soil constituents which provide an energy gradient that supports microbial life.
Conditions of partial oxidation and non-oxidation in the Martian soil were first suggested when the drill uncovered gray rather than red soil samples.
Comparison shows the X-ray diffraction patterns of two different samples collected from the Martian ...
Comparison shows the X-ray diffraction patterns of two different samples collected from the Martian surface by NASA's Curiosity rover.
Paul Mahaffy, principal investigator of the SAM suite of instruments at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said: "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."
Curiosity will remain in the "Yellowknife Bay" area for more weeks before it begins its journey to Gale Crater's Mount Sharp, where it will conduct an investigation of areas where clay minerals and sulfate minerals were detected from orbit. It is hoped that investigation in Mount Sharp will provide additional clues about the duration and diversity of the Mars' ancient habitable conditions.
NASA's latest announcement comes about two weeks after after Curiosity's main computer malfunctioned, forcing activation of a backup computer.
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