NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover Finds Signs of Ancient Habitability in Rocks

Powder drilled out of a rock on Mars contains the best evidence yet that the Red Planet could have supported life billions of years ago, the team behind NASA’s Curiosity rover said Tuesday.

“I think this is probably the only definitively habitable environment that we have described and recorded,” said David Blake, a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center who is the principal investigator for Curiosity’s CheMin lab.

The findings are in line with what the scientists hoped to find when they sent the 1-ton, six-wheeled laboratory to Mars’ Gale Crater. “It wasn’t serendipity that got us here. It was the result of planning,” Caltech’s John Grotzinger, the mission’s project scientist, told reporters at NASA Headquarters in Washington on Tuesday.

Serendipity did, however, play a part in being able to find the evidence so soon, he said. Curiosity’s handlers had planned to head for a 3-mile-high (5-mile-high) mountain in the middle of the crater. But once the rover landed, the science team decided to take a detour to a geologically interesting area in the opposite direction.

Last month, the rover finally got a chance to drill into a Martian rock at the site, called John Klein, and the results were announced at Tuesday’s news briefing. “We really ran the table with this analysis,” Blake said.

Grotzinger said that Curiosity’s scientists could focus on the systematic search for organic carbon compounds now that they had “the issue of habitability in the bag.”

Earlier NASA missions have found evidence that salty, acidic water was once present on Mars, but that type of extreme environment would have been challenging for most of the organisms that live on Earth today. Curiosity’s latest chemical analysis produced a different result: The mineral readings indicated that the type of water available when the John Klein rocks was formed, billions of years ago, could have supported life as we know it on Earth, Grotzinger said.

“We have found a habitable environment which 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,” Grotzinger said.