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Curiosity Uncovers Underground Lake

Posted: December 9th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: NASA | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Curiosity Uncovers Underground Lake

NASA.Curiosity Uncovers Underground Lake.Dec 2013

NASA’s Curiosity rover has dug below the Martian surface, and for the first time uncovered direct evidence of what used to be a freshwater lake. There is no water left where the lake once was, but drill tests and chemical analysis of fine-grained rocks by the Curiosity robot’s science tools suggest conditions were right for the lake to have once supported microbial life, perhaps as long as 3.6 billion years ago.

NASA’a latest findings provide the strongest evidence to-date that Mars could have held life to take hold, according to the report in the journal Science ::::

NASA-Curiosity Uncovers Underground Lake-Rover

Co-author Sanjeev Gupta, of the Imperial College London, describes the discovery as “great” because lakes are the perfect environment for simple life to develop and be preserved.

“This is the first time that we have actually found rocks on Mars that provide evidence of the existence of lakes,” he said.

The rocks contained signs of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulphur, according to the report. Small bacterial life forms known as chemolithoautotrophs are known to thrive under similar conditions on Earth, and are typically found in caves and under the sea in hydrothermal vents.

While no life forms have been detected in the rocks, Mr Gupta says the mobile Mars Science Laboratory has drilled into the mudstone and sandstone rocks and found clay minerals, suggesting an interaction with water.

The sandstone also resembles that found in Earth rivers, leading scientists to hypothesise that a river once flowed into the lake, which lies at the foot of a low mountain.

Researchers have already found evidence of water elsewhere on Mars’ surface, and the work of past orbiters has strongly suggested Mars had lakes at some point.

Mr Gupta says the next step is to analyse specimens from a thick pile of rocks scattered on the crater’s surface for further evidence of habitable environments.

The $2.75 billion car-sized rover is remotely operated by NASA engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The US space agency chose the Gale Crater as the 2012 landing site for the unmanned, Curiosity rover specifically because it was believed to contain many geological layers and likely held water.

Its mission is to search for geologic conditions that might have been right for life to exist, but it does not contain tools that can actually detect life.

Mr Gupta described the latest findings as a huge technical achievement and says scientists have been surprised at the diversity of ancient environments they have found so far, from acidic and salty to gentler freshwater.

“It gives us great confidence for the future and for this mission that we should carry on exploring,” he said.

NASA-Surprising Amount of Water in Mars Soil-Trenches Dug by Rover-Sept 2013

Surprising Amount of Water in Mars Soil

Earlier this year – September – a soil analysis on Mars by the Curiosity rover has turned up a surprising amount of water, as well as a chemical that will make a search for life more complicated, scientists said.

A scoop of fine-grained sand collected by the rover shortly after its August 2012 touchdown showed the soil contains about 2 percent of water by weight.

“It was kind of a surprise to us,” Curiosity scientist Laurie Leshin said. “If you take a cubic foot of that soil you can basically get two pints of water out it. The soil on the surface is really a little like a sponge for sucking stuff out of the atmosphere.”

Scientists announced last week that the planet’s atmosphere shows no signs of methane, a gas which on Earth is strongly tied to life.

Plumes of methane had been detected over the past decade by Mars orbiters and ground-based telescopes. Methane, which should last about 200 years under Martian photochemistry, also can be produced by geologic events. Curiosity heated soil to 835C, analysed gas releases

The water was found by heating a tiny bit of soil to 835 degrees Celsius inside Curiosity’s chemistry laboratory and analysing the resulting gas releases.

Scientists found that in addition to water, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and other materials, the sands of Mars also contain reactive chemicals known as perchlorates.

NASA’s now-defunct Phoenix lander had found perchlorate in the planet’s northern polar region, but scientists did not know until Curiosity’s analysis that the chemical is apparently widespread.

“They seem to accumulate on the surface [of Mars], almost like snow,” lead Curiosity scientist John Grotzinger said.

That is important to know because looking for organic material on Mars may now require a new approach.

“The tried-and-true technique on Earth is to heat the sample and take a look at the gases that are produced,” Mr Grotzinger said.

Read what NASA’s Curiosity rover discovered in its first year on Mars
But the heat can cause perchlorate to break down, in the process degrading the organic compounds scientists are looking for, Mr Grotzinger said.

“We as a community will have to wrestle with understanding the behaviour of perchlorate.”

The presence of perchlorate in soil samples could explain why scientists have so far had a hard time finding organic material on Mars.

Even if life never evolved on Mars, the planet should have organic carbon deposits left by crashing asteroids and meteors, scientists believe.

The results of Curiosity’s first 100 days on Mars, published in the journal Science this week, also revealed the presence of a rock with a far more complicated chemical history than scientists expected to find on Mars.

Curiosity is continuing its search for habitats that could have supported ancient microbial life. It already has found one suitable location inside an ancient slab of bedrock near the rover’s Gale Crater landing site.

Curiosity is driving to its primary science site, a five-kilometre tall mountain rising from the crater’s floor.

NASA-Mars Once Suited to Life-March 2013

Mars Once Suited to Life

In march this year NASA said analysis of rock samples from Mars had shown that the red planet would once have been capable of supporting life.

Analysis of Mars rocks by the Curiosity rover uncovered the building blocks of life – hydrogen, carbon and oxygen – and evidence the planet could once have supported organisms, NASA said.

“A fundamental question for this mission is whether Mars could have supported a habitable environment,” Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program said. “From what we know now, the answer is yes.”

At a televised press conference, the NASA team said this was the first definitive proof a life-supporting environment had existed beyond Earth.

“There are places we’ve suggested could be habitable, but we haven’t measured there,” Dave Blake, principal investigator for Curiosity’s Chemistry and Mineralogy investigation, said.

Curiosity, a six-wheeled robot with 10 scientific instruments on board, is the most sophisticated vehicle ever sent to another planet.

The sample was drilled from sedimentary bedrock in an area which previous research had shown to be an ancient river system or lake bed.

It was found to contain clay minerals, sulfate minerals and other chemicals. Based on the analysis of those chemicals, researchers were able to determine that the water in which the rocks were formed was of a relatively neutral pH – not overly salty, acidic, or oxidising.

“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 there, you would have been able to drink it,” John Grotzinger, the principal investigator for the Rover mission, said.

Mr Grotzinger described an ancient lake bed where NASA’s Curiosity rover collected its first sample.

“The lake bed was filled by sediment, derived from streams,” he said. “But we don’t know how long-lived it was. And so that’s always a challenge we’ve got on Mars. It’s not like the rocks come with numbers on them that tell you how long the water was there or how much there was there ultimately. I think what can do now, with the issue of habitability in the bag [is] we can undertake a more systematic search for a brighter carbon signal.

Speaking at the same press conference, one of NASA’s top officials, John Grunsfeld, said the discovery made him “feel giddy”.

He said the new data helps add to the picture of what 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. Although it is hard to confirm an exact date, it was probably at least 3 billion years ago, Mr Grotzinger said.

Researchers also noted that future rock samples will be needed to confirm these results, because it is possible that residual carbon on the drill affected the analysis.

But “the instrument is working beautifully,” Paul Mahaffy, principal investigator for Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars investigation, enthused.

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.

The $US2.5 billion nuclear-powered Curiosity has been exploring the planet’s surface since its dramatic landing on August 6, for an anticipated two-year mission.

Scientists do not expect Curiosity to find aliens or living creatures – and indeed, they said Tuesday, the rover does not have the capability to identify microbial life or fossils, even if they were present today.

But the analysis of soil and rocks is aimed at finding evidence Mars may have supported life in the past.

@m_a_silverman

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source: nasa
source: sciece
source: afp
source: reuters
image source: nasa


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