After seven months of roaming around the Red Planet, NASA’s car-size robot, called Curiosity, has finally provided evidence that Mars could have once supported microbial life, the space agency announced in a press conference from Washington D.C. on Tuesday.The first powder rock sample ever collected on Mars had traces of sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and carbon, scientists found. These elements are considered necessary to support life on Earth.
“We have found a habitable environment that is so benign and so supportive of life that if this water had been around and you had been on the planet, you would have been able to drink it,” Curiosity project scientist John Grotzinger told reporters.
The rover used the drill on her robotic arm to make a small hole in a flat rock named “John Klein” in early February. The drill churned up the rock into powder and extracted about a tablespoon of powder material
The sample was then delivered to two lab instruments on the rover — the Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument and the Sample Analysis at Mars instrument — to determine what it’s made of.
The drilling site was chosen because it had evidence that indicated the sediment was once water-soaked.The image to the right is a side-by-side comparison of X-ray diffraction patterns of two different samples collected from the Martian surface. The right image, drill powder collected by Curiosity at John Klein, is different due to the presence of clay minerals called phyllosillicates. About 20 to 30 per cent of the sample was made of clay minerals. These form in the presence of water that is not too acidic or salty — in other words a potentially habitable environment.
The first scoop also showed that the ground underneath Mars’ dusty orange-red surface is actually green-grey, meaning it is not highly oxidized and could contain preserved organic material. Mars looks red because the top layer is mostly made of iron oxide, or iron that rusted after being exposed to oxygen.
NASA’s $2.5-billion rover landed in Mars’ Gale Crater in August 2012. She’s currently parked in an area called Yellowknife Bay inside of Gale crater. The six-wheeled robot will hang out there for a few more weeks to collect another sample that will hopefully confirm the results of the first sample. Then she’s headed for a spot near the base of Mount Sharpe, which rises up from the centre of Gale crater.
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