The news was a very big deal.
The Mars rover Curiosity had delivered back data on a sample of Martian rock. Once analyzed, the data showed that Mars, at one time, had at least some of the ingredients necessary for primitive life.
But it seemed the discovery was met with a bit less fanfare than previous Curiosity milestones, including the rover’s landing last year. That’s likely because so many discoveries and milestones have resulted from the Curiosity mission already, such as proof there was once water on Mars, and clues as to how Mars lost much of its atmosphere.
But the discovery announced Tuesday, while not little green men, is a significant one — and a discovery met with excitement throughout the Mars Science Laboratory team, including at Goddard Space Flight Center where Paul Mahaffy, Principal Investigator for the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) team is based.
“It was really exciting on the SAM end. We were getting some of that critical data down just around midnight, and various people were looking at different parts of the data to analyze,” said Mahaffy during a phone interview Wednesday. “People were tired, but it was very exhilarating.”
Cheers went up as soon as Curiosity delivered the data down, and, said Mahaffy, it was exciting “regardless of what we would see.”
But then the pieces started to come together, and it started to dawn on the team the significance of what they had found. “It took awhile for some of that to sink in,” said Mahaffy. Once it did, though, the first reaction was “wow.”
The team, in conjunction with the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMIN) team and others around the world, have pinpointed the presence of nitrogen, hydrogen, sulfur, oxygen, carbon and phosphorous. Approximately 20 percent of the sample was made up of clay minerals. The have not seen, however, the presence of complex carbon compounds. But the discovery answers one of the key questions of the Curiosity mission: whether a habitable environment could have existed on Mars. The answer, NASA’s Mars Exploration Program lead scientist Michael Meyer said, is “yes.”
“This is really big science in terms of understanding a primary objective of MSL was to really explore … to see if there was a habitable environment,” said Mahaffy. “We’re not detecting life, but we’re certainly finding an environment that could have been conducive to life billions of years ago.”
“We’re kind of getting our first taste” of an ancient and very different environment, said Mahaffy.
But could we make Mars habitable? Possibly.
“It is certainly plausible,” said Mahaffy of whether some form of life could be brought back to Mars, “I think that’s possible, yeah.”
Given that there are harsh environments in which plants survive here on Earth, said Mahaffy, great care is taken to make sure that a resilient microbe doesn’t accidentally get transported on missions to the Red Planet. And, while not certain, the findings show that it is entirely possible there is microbial life on Mars now.
Curiosity is the first spacecraft sent to Mars capable of drilling into rock and extracting a sample for analysis. The Rover is currently in an area called Yellowknife Bay where it will stay for several weeks before making its way to Gale Crater. Communication with the rover will go offline for nearly the entire month of April due to a planetary alignment that places the such between Earth and Mars.
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