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NASA says Mars could have supported life long ago

Mar 13 (): NASA announced on Tuesday that ancient Mars could have supported life in the form of living microbes.

Analysis of powdered rock samples drilled out from inside an ancient and once water-soaked rock at the rover’s Gale Crater landing site show the presence of sulphur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon – some of the key chemical ingredients required to support life, scientists told reporters at NASA headquarters in Washington and on a conference call on Tuesday.

The data indicate that the Yellowknife Bay area, where water once flowed and where the rover is exploring now, was the end of an ancient river system or an intermittently wet lake bed that could have provided chemical energy and other favourable conditions for microbes. This ancient wet environment, unlike some others on Mars was not harshly oxidising, acidic or extremely salty, NASA stated.

The water was probably drinkable, said Curiosity’s lead scientist John Grotzinger, who is with the California Institute of Technology.

The American agency said that the scientists were surprised to find a mixture of oxidised, less oxidised, and even non-oxidised chemicals, providing an energy gradient of the sort many microbes on earth exploit to live. This partial oxidation was first hinted at when the drill cuttings were revealed to be gray, rather than red.

Guy Murphy, vice-president of the Mars Society Australia, takes a similar view. “As one of the components of water, oxygen is everywhere on the planet. But the discovery demonstrates conditions at this location could have sustained life on Mars in the distant past.” In particular, it suggests there once ran water that was neutral or only slightly alkaline.

Speaking at the same press conference, one of NASA’s top officials John Grunsfeld said the red planet may have looked in a previous era, with a possible freshwater lake and a snow-capped Mount Sharp. But it would not have looked like that any time recently, the researchers cautioned.

Researchers also noted that more rock samples will be needed to confirm these results. The team is already planning out where and when to take the next rock samples, as well as planning out the rover’s route to nearby Mount Sharp, where mineral analysis should help with dating calculations.