NASA’s Spirit rover may have provided a hint to the timeless question regarding the existence of extraterrestrial life.
The Smithsonian Mag has reported that in 2008, Spirit‘s camera’s revealed deposits of a mineral called opaline silica inside Mars’ Gusev crater; what was found on the outer layers of the mineral is what has NASA scientists questioning the possibility of life on the Martian planet.
Tiny nodules resembling heads of cauliflower sprouting from the red dirt are seen to be covering the opaline silica and scientists have yet to determine how the shapes — labled “micro-digitate silica portrustions” — were formed.
But according to recent research in the Chilean desert (claimed to resemble the soil-type found on Mars) by Steven Ruff and Jack Farmer, microbes may have been the cause of the mineral’s formation.
During a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December, the two scientists from Arizona State University in Tempe presented the case that their hypothesis regarding the silica proves to be our best shot for identifying evidence of past life on Mars.
And if their logic holds true, the Smithsonian report believes the results captured by NASA’s Spirit rover could “go down in history as arguably the biggest discovery ever in astronomy.”
The Huffington Post also noted that similar cauliflower-esque formations have been identified in New Zealand and Wyoming and linked to microbes, but other experts in the field “warn against getting too excited” over the recent findings.
“I don’t think there is any way around using modern Earth analogs to test where Martian microbes may be found,” Kurt Konhauser, editor-in-chief of the journal Geobiology, told Smithsonian.
“Having worked on modern hot springs, I have seen all forms of structures that look biological but are not,” Konhauser says. Experts have proven that silica can form from non-biological processes, while water, geography, wind, or other environmental factors can then shape it into complex structures like those captured by the Spirit rover.
“Because it looks biological doesn’t mean it is,” he says.
And though the Spirit is no longer roving Mars, a new rover named NASA’s Mars 2020 is said to be launching in a few years with the task of collecting samples from the red planet and eventually returning them to Earth.
In the meantime, Ruff and Farmer will continue their research here on earth, planning to investigate the landscape at El Tatio in the Atacama Desert in Chile that is said to resemble early Mars, to see if the region’s silica points to signs of living beings playing a role in its formation.
The Spirit Rover
According to NASA’s website, the Spirit rover landed on Mars on January 4, 2004, and was originally designed to take part in a 90 Sol mission (one Sol equals one Martian day, which is slightly longer than a day on Earth at 24 hours and 37 minutes according to scientists); but its continued discovery of new and profound information about the red planet caused for its mission to be extended several times until it lost communication with Earth in 2010 and was finally claimed dead a year later.
The Spirit rover’s twin, Opportunity, marked its 12-year anniversary on Mars this past Sunday (Jan. 24) and landed on Mars back in 2004, a few weeks after Spirit.
Like it’s twin, Opportunity was only supposed to explore the Martian planet for 90 days, but continues to rover on to this day. Both robots were tasked with finding signs of past water activity on Mars, and successfully gathered information and evidence near their landing sites of previous water activity on the planet.
(AP Photo/NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Cornell)