NASA Determines Mars Was Habitable

NASA Determines Mars Was Habitable

The primary mission for NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover was to determine if Mars was habitable in the past.  Today NASA answered that question:  yes.

Curiosity drilled into a rock near its landing site in Mars’s Gale Crater and deposited material from it into instruments designed to analyze such samples.  This is the first time a sample from the interior of a Martian rock has been able to be analyzed.  

At a press conference at NASA Headquarters today, Curiosity’s science team, led by CalTech’s John Grotzinger, announced the results.  They are convinced that the analysis shows the area once was filled with salty water, either the end of a river system or a lake.   Grotzinger’s bottom line is that if a person had been on Mars at the time “you would have been able to drink this water.”  Another important discovery is that the material contains chemicals “providing an energy gradient of the sort many microbes on Earth exploit to live.”

The analysis does not indicate whether life actually existed on Mars, only that it could have.  NASA stresses that Curiosity is not designed to answer the question of whether life existed on Mars.

The rover is still recovering from a computer memory problem and although it is functioning well on its backup computer, science operations remain suspended until ground controllers understand the root cause of the anomaly.   They hope to resume science operations soon, but they will be suspended again during most of April when a celestial conjunction prevents communications between Earth and Mars because the Sun is in the way.  After the conjunction, the science team plans to obtain a second sample to confirm this discovery. 

As David Blake, principle investigator for Curiosity’s Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument, said today, Gale Crater “is the only definitively habitable environment” found in the solar system other than Earth.

Correction:  An earlier verison of this article incorrectly stated that John Grotzinger is with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).  He is at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech), which operates JPL for NASA.

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