Science

NASA’s Curiosity rover finds whiff of possible life on Mars

PTI Washington | Updated on November 21, 2017

This collage shows the variety of soils found at landing sites on Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity's 'Rocknest' Workplace. NASA's Curiosity Mars rover documented itself in the context of its work site, an area called "Rocknest Wind Drift," on the 84th Martian day, or sol, of its mission (October 31, 2012). The rover worked at this location from Sol 56 (Oct. 2, 2012) to Sol 100 (Nov. 16, 2012). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

This is a view of the third (left) and fourth (right) trenches made by the 1.6-inch-wide (4-centimeter-wide) scoop on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity in October 2012. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Chlorinated Compounds at 'Rocknest'.Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC

This map shows where NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has driven since landing at a site subsequently named "Bradbury Landing," and traveling to an overlook position near beside "Point Lake," in drives totaling 1,703 feet (519 m). The rover landed on August 5 Pacific Time (August 6, Universal Time). It was at the easternmost waypoint on this map on November 30, 2012. It worked on scoops of soil for a few weeks at the drift of windblown sand called "Rocknest." The place called "Glenelg" is where three types of terrain meet. The depression called "Yellowknife Bay" is a potential location for selecting the first target rock for Curiosity's hammering drill. All of these sites are within Gale Crater and north of the mountain called Mount Sharp in the middle of the crater. After using its drill in the Glenelg area, the rover's main science destination will be on the lower reaches of Mount Sharp. The base image from the map is from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment Camera (HiRISE) in NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

Panoramic View From 'Rocknest' Position of Curiosity Mars Rover. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

A Martian Rock Called 'Rocknest 3'. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity used a mechanism on its robotic arm to dig up five scoopfuls of material from a patch of dusty sand called "Rocknest," producing the five bite-mark pits visible in this image from the rover's left Navigation Camera (Navcam). Each of the pits is about 2 inches (5 cm) wide. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This focus-merge image from the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) on the arm of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity shows a rock called "Burwash." The rock has a coating of dust on it. The coarser, visible grains are windblown sand. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity has found tantalising clues that life may have once existed on the Red planet, but scientists said it was too early to make much of the first soil analyses.

Scientists found traces of carbon in several compounds detected by the rover’s Sample Analysis at Mars instrument.

They, however, do not yet know if the carbon — a key building block for life — is contamination from Earth, was delivered to Mars by organics—rich asteroids, or arose on Mars itself.

The carbon, if indigenous, could be an indicator of geologic or biological activity, the Discovery News reported.

“We’re not really sure of where it comes from right now,” the mission’s lead scientist John Grotzinger said during the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco.

“Just finding carbon somewhere doesn’t mean that it has anything to do with life, or the finding of a habitable environment,” he said.

Life, as we know, needs three basic ingredients to evolve — water, a energy source and carbon. Other building blocks include sulphur, oxygen, phosphorous and nitrogen.

Curiosity, which is four months into a planned two-year mission on Mars, already has turned up evidence that its landing spot on the floor Gale Crater, was once covered in water, the report said.

Minerals in the soil analysis also show a history of chemical interaction with water. Curiosity contains an on-board chemistry laboratory to find possible ingredients for microbial life, the environments that could have supported it and places where life could have been preserved.

Sample Analysis at Mars, till now, has detected signs of an oxygen-chlorine compound, possibly perchlorate, and traces of carbon-containing chlorinated methane compounds.

Scientists specifically chose dry, fine-grained sand believed to be typical to the Martian surface for Curiosity’s first soil analysis.

“It’s not unexpected that this sand pile would not be rich in organics. It’s been exposed to the harsh Martian environment,” said lead SAM scientist Paul Mahaffy, with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

“What we’re seeing here are some very simple compounds, and it’s entirely possible they’re coming from the very reactive chlorine that’s released and picking up carbon from somewhere. We have to try to understand where that carbon is coming from,” he said.

Published on December 04, 2012

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