NASA: Mars rock sample shows Red Planet could have supported life

NASA said analysis of a rock sample collected by Curiosity rover shows ancient Mars could have supported a habitable environment

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One of the chief goals of NASA's Mars Science Lab and its Curiosity rover was to determine if the Red Planet could have supported life in some fashion and now comes news that apparently it could have.

Confirmation of that major discovery came today as NASA said analysis of a rock sample collected by Curiosity rover shows ancient Mars could have supported living microbes.  NASA said its scientists identified sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon -- some of the key chemical ingredients for life -- in the powder Curiosity drilled out of a sedimentary rock near an ancient stream bed in what's known as Gale Crater on the Red Planet last month.

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NASA said clues to what it called a habitable environment come from data run by the rover's onboard Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instruments. The data indicate the area Curiosity is exploring, known as Yellowknife Bay, was the end of an ancient river system or an intermittently wet lake bed that could have provided chemical energy and other favorable conditions for microbes. The rock is made up of a fine grain mudstone containing clay minerals, sulfate minerals and other chemicals. This ancient wet environment, unlike some others on Mars, was not harshly oxidizing, acidic, or extremely salty, NASA says.

"These clay minerals are a product of the reaction of relatively fresh water with igneous minerals, such as olivine, also present in the sediment. The reaction could have taken place within the sedimentary deposit, during transport of the sediment or in the source region of the sediment. The presence of calcium sulfate along with the clay suggests the soil is neutral or mildly alkaline," NASA said.  

The plan is for Curiosity to explore the Yellowknife Bay area for a number of weeks before beginning a long drive to Mount Sharp in the middle of Gale Crater where clay minerals and sulfate minerals have been identified from orbit, may add information about the duration and diversity of habitable conditions.

"A fundamental question for this mission is whether Mars could have supported a habitable environment," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "From what we know now, the answer is yes."

Ironically NASA's Mars rover Curiosity isn't doing any exploring right now since the rover team  is currently assessing and recovering from a memory glitch that affected the rover's main or  A-side computer. Curiosity has two computers that are redundant of one another. The rover is currently operating using the B-side computer, which is operating as expected, NASA said.   

Controllers switched the rover to a redundant onboard computer, the rover's "B-side" computer, on Feb. 28 when the "A-side" computer that the rover had been using demonstrated symptoms of a corrupted memory location. The intentional computer swap put the rover into minimal-activity safe mode. Curiosity exited safe mode on Saturday, March 2, and resumed using its high-gain antenna the following day.  The cause for the A-side's memory symptoms remains to be determined.

"These tests have provided us with a great deal of information about the rover's A-side memory," said Jim Erickson, deputy project manager for the Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity mission at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "We have been able to store new data in many of the memory locations previously affected and believe more runs will demonstrate more memory is available."

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