Curiosity finds ancient Mars habitable. Now, the bigger question.

March 12, 2013 | 4:00 p.m.
rocks on mars Curiosity finds ancient Mars habitable. Now, the bigger question.

The rock at left, seen by Opportunity rover on Mars, is formed from sulfate-rich sandstone, cemented in the presence of water, scientists say, but this environment likely was not habitable -- due to extreme salinity and acidity of the water. But the rock at right, seen by Curiosity, indicates an ancient habitable environment: neutral pH, chemical gradients that would have created energy for microbes, and a distinctly low salinity, which would have helped metabolism if microorganisms had ever been present. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/MSSS)

analog to yellowknife bay on mars Curiosity finds ancient Mars habitable. Now, the bigger question.

NASA provided this Martian analog to the Yellowknife Bay area, where Curiosity has been exploring. At left, a pit exposing clay-bearing lake sediments, deposited in a basaltic basin in southern Australia. At right is a core sample from the lakebed, with layered, clay-rich sediments. The layers show the changing lake chemistry and environmental conditions over time. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ames)

rock scratch and rock drill Curiosity finds ancient Mars habitable. Now, the bigger question.

Opportunity rover could only abrade the rock, left. Curiosity used its drill to bore the hole at right. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell/MSSS)

scoop of martian rock Curiosity finds ancient Mars habitable. Now, the bigger question.

The result of the drilling was this scoop of powdered rock, which then provided proof that ancient Mars contained the ingredients for life. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

The Mars rover Curiosity has accomplished a primary mission objective in discovering that ancient Mars could have supported life.

Now, scientists wonder whether they can unearth the story of Mars’ transformation from a wet, possibly life-supporting planet to the red dust bowl it has become.  What happened on Mars?

NASA scientists hope to find clues in Gale Crater.  Unlike other parts of Mars, it has been found to have the properties that could have supported life on ancient Mars. The rock recently explored by Curiosity shows “neutral pH, chemical gradients that would have created energy for microbes and a distinctly low salinity, which would have helped metabolism if microorganisms had ever been present,” the space agency says.

Scientists were fortunate — and smart — in their choice of Gale Crater as a landing site. But Mt. Sharp was the main target.

“We first found evidence for an ancient river system in Gale Crater before we landed,” scientist Ashwin Vasavada told the Los Angeles Times in an interview Thursday. The landing site NASA chose was “within striking distance” of Mt. Sharp.

Instead of heading straight for Mt. Sharp “when we landed, we chose to drive 500 yards or so to check out the evidence” of the river system, “even though it was the wrong direction relative to the mountain.

“That choice has now paid off,” he said, “big time.”

Curiosity went on its historic drilling mission, which in turn led to analysis of powdered rock and the evidence it contained of the ingredients to life.

Now, “the team is even more excited to keep exploring,” Vasavada said.

Curiosity is set to climb Mt. Sharp’s foothills. And as Curiosity drives “through layers of rock laid down over millions of years,” researchers can look for clues to the planet’s history.

“With one habitable environment in the bag, we now can see if such environments persisted over time, and maybe even see Mars turn from an ancient, wet planet into the dry, barren planet it is today.”

— Amy Hubbard


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19 Responses to Curiosity finds ancient Mars habitable. Now, the bigger question.

  1. Malone,Robert says:

    so what's up can we start building a base on the moon to start drilling on mars or what?

    • Robert M says:

      Well, it is proof that life is possible elsewhere in the universe than our own planet, which statistically GREATLY increases the odds that life does exist elsewhere in the universe. Maybe not that important, but at least the second-most important scientific discovery in human history…to bad everyone is off watching the latest horrendous reality show rather than paying attention….

      • Sherry01 says:

        Well said. If only more research was funded in this direction, and for once if humanity would drop its material-mindedness and begin to wonder of our origins, we would sure find some answers. We did that in 1969, and the world sure was a better place those couple of decades. Back to the question of our origins and the quest for life elsewhere, even Francis Crick speculated that life may have been seeded; in the sense that there are seeds of life strewn all over the universe, and if Mars shows these signs it may well have harboured the primitive organisms that eventually seeded on earth. I am very curious to know if Mars did after all support complex life, which perhaps was eventually wiped out with the diminishing magnetic field of the planet – a fate presumed to befall our planet as well. I wish there was a kaleidoscope that told the whole story. I wonder if it be too complex a mission to design a rover that would dig many feet into the Mars soil – what sort of fossils would we find there, or the much speculated water. Is it the sheer complexity of designing such a rover that is preventing NASA embarking on such a mission, or would they rather wait until they have the technology to send humans there? I simply wish there was more done for space missions since 1969. Not only would we have had many of our questions answered, but it would also have made the world a better place, than the mundane, money-centric world we happen to have landed ourselves in today.

  2. matt says:

    im going to be selling timeshares there… please feel free to contact me!

  3. E.R.B. says:

    Say HI to John Carter for me

  4. Sallie Bailet says:

    I have wondered – if we ever were able to excavate Mars – would we find ancient ruins? Just a reandom thought.

  5. Bob says:

    I love the way this article says "could have supported life", what type of life?, certainly not as we know it, that comes about only through the act of creation, not out of a laboratory of microorganisms… water was present, so the elements necessary for life are found, this means nothing except a lot of funds spent that could have gone to those less fortunate here on earth…..the Russians just found some type of dna 4 km down in water under glacial ice, here on earth, but it means nothing, we were formed through an act of creation not coming up from the slime or whatever version science has now……..

    • charly Darwin says:

      Act of Creation?

    • The Thinker says:

      I respect your opinion however if god truly is omniscient would he not exist throughout the universe and possibly on other planets?

    • Vince says:

      Bob, what about preaching that to the church voting for a new pope while there are sitting on Gold seats. How come they are not dishing some of their wealth at Vatican for the poor???

    • jesse says:

      hahahhahahahahahahaha christians… go back to church n starting wars n conflicts while science extends our knowledge of the universe around us, ourselves, where were going and where we were. open your mind instead of blindly accepting an ancient story book as fact. sorry but you wanna rub your beliefs in our faces here comes mine right back.

  6. WWJ says:

    No one who reads the Bible should be surprised by this.

  7. acezenn says:

    Let go to mars!!!

  8. peter says:


  9. Robert says:

    It was habitable in ancient times.

  10. Gadsby says:

    Wait for it…they are building towards deducing that habitable Mars was destroyed by GLOBAL WARMING!

  11. Steve says:

    This article is asking all the wrong questions IMO. If Mars supported life, it was most likely single celled organisms, or maybe just proteins. So here is the more compelling question. Is it possible that Mars could have been hit by a meteor with glancing blow that would carry those Martian proteins/single celled organisms to Earth? If that is possible, then we might now have the missing piece of the puzzle for the origins of life on Earth. It always blows my mind how out of a chemical soup billions of years ago, evolved an organism capable of creating a way to send thoughts and ideas across the planet instantly. Maybe Mars is the smoking gun in the debate about the origins of life.

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