NASA says Mars could have supported life

Mars could have been home to life some time in its history, NASA has revealed in an exciting new announcement. Analysis of a sample drilled out of a rock by its Curiosity rover showed it contained some key chemical ingredients for life to exist.

Curiosity's scoop holds the first sample of powdered rock extracted by the rover's drill
Curiosity’s scoop holds the first sample of powdered rock extracted by the rover’s drill. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The powder, extracted from the stone near an ancient river bed, showed it would have been an ideal environment for simple microbes as it would have provided them with an energy source to feed on.

The space scientists have not found life itself. But the new evidence from Curiosity’s landing site in Gale Crater is a big step towards answering the question of whether Martians ever inhabited the Red Planet.

Some believe that simple life might still be surviving beneath the radiation-battered surface and be producing the plumes of methane that have been detected around Mars.

In the latest findings, sulphur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon were found inside the sample analysed by Curiosity, more formally known as Mars Science Laboratory.

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It landed on Mars last August and has since been trundling slowly through Gale Crater looking for interesting rocks and other samples to examine.

“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.”

The rock powder – which appeared grey rather than red – was analysed by two instruments on the rover, the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin). Clay minerals in local bedrock shows evidence of several wet periods at the site, billions of years ago.

John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory project scientist, said: “We have characterized a very ancient, but strangely new ‘grey Mars’ where conditions once were favourable 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.”

By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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