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03/12/2013

Mars Curiosity rover finds evidence that planet could have supported microbial life

Mars_drill

This combination image provided by NASA shows the results from the rock abrasion tool from Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity (L) and the drill from NASA's Curiosity rover (R). An analysis of a Mars rock sample by the Curiosity rover has unveiled minerals, including hydrogen, carbon and oxygen, that are the building blocks of life, NASA said (AFP PHOTO / NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/MSSS).

Not to ruin anyone's day here, but it's highly unlikely that humans' first contact with alien life will be eyeball-to-eyeball.

No, evidence that other planets or solar systems ever supported life will come in slow increments, if it ever comes at all. So one's ability to get excited over announcements such as NASA's on Tuesday probably depends on how much The X-Files ruined one's expectations forever. 

On Tuesday, scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced that the Curiosity rover on Mars had analyzed a rock sample and discovered evidence of conditions that could have supported microbial life.

In the dust drilled from sedimentary rock near an ancient streambed, Curiosity's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instruments discovered hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, sulfur, nitrogen, and phosphorus, some of the building blocks of life.

Unlike other wet environments sampled by the rover, this one wasn't overly acidic or otherwise inhospitable to life. Though ancient, the area could have once supported a habitable environment, said Curiosity project scientist John Grotzinger --  in fact, the water was probably drinkable.

The mission did not find evidence of actual microbes, however.

Last November, Grotzinger riled up the science blog-etariat by telling a radio reporter that Curiosity was sending back data "for the history books." That turned out to be something of a disappointment; he was excited because the insturments were working really well.

On Tuesday, Grotzinger addressed that episode in response to a question from the press.  “I feel better about it now,” he laughed.

Curiosity touched down last August and will spend two years on Mars; part of its mission is to discover whether the red planet could have ever supported life.


Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.

 

 

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