Curiosity Rover Rock Sample Suggests Mars Was Once Habitable

The Mars Curiosity rover’s first rock sample analysis suggests that Mars was once a habitable planet.

The analysis was conducted after the rover drilled into a patch of bedrock and deposited the sample into its Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instruments.

Scientists announced the finding during a press conference on Tuesday. Michael Meyer, lead scientists for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, stated: “A fundamental question for this mission is whether Mars could have supported a habitable environment. From what we know now, the answer is yes.”

Scientists were able to use the rover’s onboard instruments to identify sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and carbon in the rock sample. It was drilled from a sedimentary rock near an ancient stream bed in the Gale Crater.

The chemicals are some of the key ingredients for life, suggesting that Mars could have harbored living microbes at one point in its history. The data collected by the Curiosity rover also suggests that the Yellowknife Bay area where the sample was collected was once either the end of an ancient river system or an intermittently wet lake bed.

The rock sample collected contained clay minerals, sulfate minerals, and other chemicals. Unlike other regions on Mars, this ancient environment wasn’t too harsh. The clay minerals, which count for about 20 percent of the sample’s makeup, are produced when relatively fresh water contacts igneous minerals like olivine.

The finding is huge for scientists and engineers working with the Curiosity rover. They plan to work with the rover in the Yellowknife area for a few more months before they begin the long trek to Mount Sharp, which rises from the center of the Gale Crater. The rover will investigate the stack of layers on Mount Sharp to determine more information about the possibility of ancient life on Mars.

Curiosity, outfitted with 10 science instruments, landed in the crater seven months ago. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been operating the rover in a mission to investigate whether the region has ever been able to host microbial life. Given the results from the rock sample drilled by Curiosity, the mission may be called a success already.

[Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS]