UPDATE 2:02 p.m. NASA hasn’t quite discovered Martians, but Tuesday the space agency announced its rover Curiosity has found the chemical ingredients for life in a mudstone.
It’s the equivalent of a hole-in-one for NASA: the first rock sample collected by the rover Curiosity contains oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and other chemicals necessary to support microbes — at least several billion years ago. David Blake, principal investigator at California’s Ames Research Center, calls it “paydirt.” He said that, outside of Earth, Mars is the most life-friendly place scientists have found in the universe.
"I think this is probably the only definitively inhabitable environment we have described and recorded," Blake said. "There are places we would suggest could be habitable, but we haven’t measured there."
It’s not just the chemicals NASA found that are significant, it’s also the lack of acidity in the clay of this first soil sample. John Grotzinger, project scientist at Caltech, said a microbe could have lived and prospered in Yellowknife Bay.
"We have found a habitable environment that is so benign and supportive of life that probably, if this water was around and you had been on the planet, you would have been able to drink it."
Curiosity will take a break in April during the solar conjunction — the biannual event when the sun is between Earth and Mars. In May, the rover will take a second soil sample before beginning its journey to Mount Sharp, the mound in the center of Gale Crater. Scientists estimate Curiosity has enough power to last 84 years — long enough, they hope, to shake the hand of the first astronaut to land on Mars.
— Kitty Felde
UPDATE 11:10 a.m.: NASA announced Tuesday that its analysis of a rock sample collected by the rover Curiosity shows ancient Mars could have supported living microbes. (Watch a full archived video version of Tuesday's press conference below.)
Scientists said the instruments on the car sized rover have identified sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon – some of the key chemical ingredients for life – in the powder Curiosity drilled out of a sedimentary rock near an ancient stream bed in Gale Crater on the red planet last month.
"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."
NASA scientist added that the rock contains clay minerals that formed in a watery environment – an environment that may have been favorable for microscopic organisms.
For more information about the mission, see our special coverage leading up to the rover's landing on Mars:
PREVIOUSLY: The Mars rover Curiosity drilled into its first Martian rock a month ago. Now scientists on Tuesday will reveal what's inside during a g athering at NASA headquarters. You can view a live stream of the announcement above.
The rover team is expected to detail the minerals and chemicals present in a gray pinch of ground-up rock.
The results come seven months after Curiosity made a dramatic landing in an ancient crater near the equator. It has been slow going since then as engineers learn to handle the car-size rover.
Scientists are thrilled with the latest achievement – a first on Mars. It involved boring a hole, scooping the powder and running it through Curiosity's instruments.
By analyzing the rock's interior, researchers hope to determine whether the landing spot was habitable. They already have one hint – an ancient streambed that Curiosity crossed to get to the rock.