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Mars Conditions Once Suited For Ancient Life

From: Stig Agermose <stig.agermose.nul>
Date: Tue, 12 Mar 2013 21:15:29 -0700 (PDT)
Archived: Wed, 13 Mar 2013 10:09:47 -0500
Subject: Mars Conditions Once Suited For Ancient Life


Source: NASA

http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?release13-092#2


NASA Rover Finds Conditions Once Suited For Ancient Life On Mars

March 12, 2013

PASADENA, Calif. -- An analysis of a rock sample collected by
NASA's Curiosity rover shows ancient Mars could have supported
living microbes.

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 Gale Crater on the Red Planet
last month.

"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."

Clues to this habitable environment come from data returned by
the rover's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and
Mineralogy (CheMin) instruments. The data indicate the
Yellowknife Bay area the rover is exploring 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-grained
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.

The patch of bedrock where Curiosity drilled for its first
sample lies in an ancient network of stream channels descending
from the rim of Gale Crater. The bedrock also is fine-grained
mudstone and shows evidence of multiple periods of wet
conditions, including nodules and veins.

Curiosity's drill collected the sample at a site just a few
hundred yards away from where the rover earlier found an ancient
streambed in September 2012.

"Clay minerals make up at least 20 percent of the composition of
this sample," said David Blake, principal investigator for the
CheMin instrument at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett
Field, Calif.

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.

Scientists were surprised to find a mixture of oxidized, less-
oxidized, and even non-oxidized chemicals, providing an energy
gradient of the sort many microbes on Earth exploit to live.
This partial oxidation was first hinted at when the drill
cuttings were revealed to be gray rather than red.

"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," said Paul Mahaffy, principal investigator of
the SAM suite of instruments at NASA's Goddard Space Flight
Center in Greenbelt, Md.

An additional drilled sample will be used to help confirm these
results for several of the trace gases analyzed by the SAM
instrument.

"We have characterized a very ancient, but strangely new 'gray
Mars' where conditions once were favorable for life," said John
Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory project scientist at the
California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif.
"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."

Scientists plan to work with Curiosity in the "Yellowknife Bay"
area for many more weeks before beginning a long drive to Gale
Crater's central mound, Mount Sharp. Investigating the stack of
layers exposed on Mount Sharp, where clay minerals and sulfate
minerals have been identified from orbit, may add information
about the duration and diversity of habitable conditions.

NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Project has been using Curiosity
to investigate whether an area within Mars' Gale Crater ever has
offered an environment favorable for microbial life. Curiosity,
carrying 10 science instruments, landed seven months ago to
begin its two-year prime mission. NASA's Jet Propulsion
Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., manages the project for NASA's
Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

For more about the mission, visit:

http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/msl

http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/

and

http://www.nasa.gov/msl

You can follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter at:

http://www.facebook.com/marscuriosity

and

http://www.twitter.com/marscuriosity

DC Agle 818-393-9011
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
agle.nul

Dwayne Brown 202-358-1726
NASA Headquarters, Washington
Dwayne.c.brown.nul

2013-092



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