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Life on Mars? Curiosity proves Mars had the formula for life

March 12, 2013|By Amina Khan
  • The Mars rover Curiosity has found carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and other key elements needed for life in a ground-up sample of Martian rock, NASA has revealed.
The Mars rover Curiosity has found carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen… (NASA )

Drilling into the Martian surface in search of signs of ancient life, the Mars Curiosity rover hit the jackpot, NASA said Tuesday.

The intrepid geologist on wheels analyzed a powdered sample pulled out of the Red Planet last month and  discovered some of the basic building blocks of life — and signs of a past environment capable of hosting primitive microbes.

“We have found a habitable environment that is so benign and is so 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,” mission lead scientist John Grotzinger, a Caltech geologist, said at a news conference in Washington, D.C.

The powdered rock sample the rover pulled out of a rock named John Klein in Yellowknife Bay yielded sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorous and carbon — among the major players in the biological cycles of Earthly living things.

The promising chemical ingredients were just part of a larger picture of what increasingly appears to be a very inviting environment: low acidity, full of water, with signs of chemically complementary compounds.

The findings, coming far earlier than expected, are a major coup for the Mars Science Laboratory Mission, operated out of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge.

Hardly a half-mile from Curiosity's landing site, the Mars scientists say they have already found much of what they were looking to uncover at Mt. Sharp, the 3-mile-high mound in the middle of Gale Crater whose layers may reveal the various chapters of the Red Planet’s geologic history.

That hasn’t dampened the mission scientists' enthusiasm for the upcoming trek, however.

“We’re still going to go to Mt. Sharp,” Grotzinger said. In the meantime, he added, the rover’s findings could spark “what I hope will be a burgeoning field of comparative planetary habitability.”

Return to the Science Now blog.

Follow me on Twitter @aminawrite.

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