Ancient Life Could Have Existed on Mars, NASA Rover Finds

By Chris Riotta

NASA’s Curiosity, the latest rover to explore the Red Planet, discovered sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon near an ancient stream bed in Gale Crater on the Red Planet last month.  Scientists say these chemicals are some of the key ingredients to support life on a planet and provide evidence that Mars could have once supported living microbes.

Curiosity has been roaming through the Gale Crater, a section of Mars NASA has recently been studying with other rovers to determine if the planet could have ever supported microbial life.  Curiosity is carrying ten scientific instruments and experts are surprised by its continued discoveries.

“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.”

“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 were also surprised to find a mixture of oxidized, slightly oxidized, and even non-oxidized chemicals in the sample Curiosity drilled out of the planet. The differences in oxidation provide an energy gradient similar to what many microbes on Earth exploit to live.  The differences in oxidation were first apparent to scientists when the rover’s sample appeared to be gray rather than red.

Scientists controlling Curiosity plan to continue having the rover explore the outermost layer of terrain in the Gale Crater before beginning a long drive to Gale Crater’s central mound, Mount Sharp.  Investigating the stack of layers exposed with Mount Sharp, where clay minerals and sulfate minerals have already been identified from orbital photographs, may add information about the duration and diversity of habitable conditions.