Is There Life on Mars?

Is There Life on Mars?


Perhaps the most important question we can possible ask is, “are we alone in the Universe?”.

And so far, the answer has been, “I don’t know”. I mean, it’s a huge Universe, with hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way, and now we learn there are trillions of galaxies in the Universe.

Is there life closer to home? What about in the Solar System? There are a few existing places we could look for life close to home. Really any place in the Solar System where there’s liquid water. Wherever we find water on Earth, we find life, so it make sense to search for places with liquid water in the Solar System.

I know, I know, life could take all kinds of wonderful forms. Enlightened beings of pure energy, living among us right now. Or maybe space whales on Titan that swim through lakes of ammonia. Beep boop silicon robot lifeforms that calculate the wasted potential of our lives.

Sure, we could search for those things, and we will. Later. We haven’t even got this basic problem done yet. Earth water life? Check! Other water life? No idea.

It turns out, water’s everywhere in the Solar System. In comets and asteroids, on the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn, especially Europa or Enceladus. Or you could look for life on Mars.

Sloping buttes and layered outcrops within the "Murray formation" layer of lower Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA
Sloping buttes and layered outcrops within the “Murray formation” layer of lower Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA

Mars is similar to Earth in many ways, however, it’s smaller, has less gravity, a thinner atmosphere. And unfortunately, it’s bone dry. There are vast polar caps of water ice, but they’re frozen solid. There appears to be briny liquid water underneath the surface, and it occasionally spurts out onto the surface. Because it’s close and relatively easy to explore, it’s been the place scientists have gone looking for past or current life.

Researchers tried to answer the question with NASA’s twin Viking Landers, which touched down in 1976. The landers were both equipped with three biology experiments. The researchers weren’t kidding around, they were going to nail this question: is there life on Mars?

In the first experiment, they took soil samples from Mars, mixed in a liquid solution with organic and inorganic compounds, and then measured what chemicals were released. In a second experiment, they put Earth organic compounds into Martian soil, and saw carbon dioxide released. In the third experiment, they heated Martian soil and saw organic material come out of the soil.

The landing site of Viking 1 on Mars in 1977, with trenches dug in the soil for the biology experiments. Credit: NASA/JPL
The landing site of Viking 1 on Mars in 1977, with trenches dug in the soil for the biology experiments. Credit: NASA/JPL

Three experiments, and stuff happened in all three. Stuff! Pretty exciting, right? Unfortunately, there were equally plausible non-biological explanations for each of the results. The astrobiology community wasn’t convinced, and they still fight in brutal cage matches to this day. It was ambitious, but inconclusive. The worst kind of conclusive.

Researchers found more inconclusive evidence in 1994. Ugh, there’s that word again. They were studying a meteorite that fell in Antarctica, but came from Mars, based on gas samples taken from inside the rock.

They thought they found evidence of fossilized bacterial life inside the meteorite. But again, there were too many explanations for how the life could have gotten in there from here on Earth. Life found a way… to burrow into a rock from Mars.

NASA learned a powerful lesson from this experience. If they were going to prove life on Mars, they had to go about it carefully and conclusively, building up evidence that had no controversy.

Greetings from Mars! I’m Spirit and I was the first of two twin robots to land on Mars. Unlike my twin, Opportunity, I’m known as the hill-climbing robot. Artist Concept, Mars Exploration Rovers. NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist Concept, Mars Exploration Rovers. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Spirit and Opportunity Rovers were an example of building up this case cautiously. They were sent to Mars in 2004 to find evidence of water. Not water today, but water in the ancient past. Old water Over the course of several years of exploration, both rovers turned up multiple lines of evidence there was water on the surface of Mars in the ancient past.

They found concretions, tiny pebbles containing iron-rich hematite that forms on Earth in water. They found the mineral gypsum; again, something that’s deposited by water on Earth.

Opportunity's Approach to 'Homestake'. This view from the front hazard-avoidance camera on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows the rover's arm's shadow falling near a bright mineral vein informally named Homestake. The vein is about the width of a thumb and about 18 inches (45 centimeters) long. Opportunity examined it in November 2011 and found it to be rich in calcium and sulfur, possibly the calcium-sulfate mineral gypsum. Opportunity took this image on Sol 2763 on Mars (Nov. 7, 2011). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A bright mineral vein informally named Homestake. The vein is about the width of a thumb and about 18 inches (45 centimeters) long. Opportunity examined it in November 2011 (Sol 2763) and found it to be rich in calcium and sulfur, possibly the calcium-sulfate mineral gypsum. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Rover took this analysis to the next level, arriving in 2012 and searching for evidence that water was on Mars for vast periods of time; long enough for Martian life to evolve.

Once again, Curiosity found multiple lines of evidence that water acted on the surface of Mars. It found an ancient streambed near its landing site, and drilled into rock that showed the region was habitable for long periods of time.

In 2014, NASA turned the focus of its rovers from looking for evidence of water to searching for past evidence of life.

Curiosity found one of the most interesting targets: a strange strange rock formations while it was passing through an ancient riverbed on Mars. While it was examining the Gillespie Lake outcrop in Yellowknife Bay, it photographed sedimentary rock that looks very similar to deposits we see here on Earth. They’re caused by the fossilized mats of bacteria colonies that lived billions of years ago.

A bright and interestingly shaped tiny pebble shows up among the soil on a rock, called "Gillespie Lake," which was imaged by Curiosity's Mars Hand Lens Imager on Dec. 19, 2012, the 132nd sol, or Martian day of Curiosity's mission on Mars. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS.
A bright and interestingly shaped tiny pebble shows up among the soil on a rock, called “Gillespie Lake,” which was imaged by Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager on Dec. 19, 2012, the 132nd sol, or Martian day of Curiosity’s mission on Mars. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS.

Not life today, but life when Mars was warmer and wetter. Still, fossilized life on Mars is better than no life at all. But there might still be life on Mars, right now, today. The best evidence is not on its surface, but in its atmosphere. Several spacecraft have detected trace amounts of methane in the Martian atmosphere.

Methane is a chemical that breaks down quickly in sunlight. If you farted on Mars, the methane from your farts would dissipate in a few hundred years. If spacecraft have detected this methane in the atmosphere, that means there’s some source replenishing those sneaky squeakers. It could be volcanic activity, but it might also be life. There could be microbes hanging on, in the last few places with liquid water, producing methane as a byproduct.

The European ExoMars orbiter just arrived at Mars, and its main job is sniff the Martian atmosphere and get to the bottom of this question.

Are there trace elements mixed in with the methane that means its volcanic in origin? Or did life create it? And if there’s life, where is it located? ExoMars should help us target a location for future study.

The European/Russian ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will launch in 2016 and sniff the Martian atmosphere for signs of methane which could originate for either biological or geological mechanisms. Credit: ESA
The European/Russian ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) will sniff the Martian atmosphere for signs of methane which could originate for either biological or geological mechanisms. Credit: ESA

NASA is following up Curiosity with a twin rover designed to search for life. The Mars 2020 Rover will be a mobile astrobiology laboratory, capable of scooping up material from the surface of Mars and digesting it, scientifically speaking. It’ll search for the chemicals and structures produced by past life on Mars. It’ll also collect samples for a future sample return mission.

Even if we do discover if there’s life on Mars, it’s entirely possible that we and Martian life are actually related by a common ancestor, that split off billions of years ago. In fact, some astrobiologists think that Mars is a better place for life to have gotten started.

Not the dry husk of a Red Planet that we know today, but a much wetter, warmer version that we now know existed billions of years ago. When the surface of Mars was warm enough for liquid water to form oceans, lakes and rivers. And we now know it was like this for millions of years.

A conception of an ancient and/or future Mars, flush with oceans, clouds and life. Credit: Kevin Gill.
A conception of an ancient Mars, flush with oceans, clouds and life. Credit: Kevin Gill.

While Earth was still reeling from an early impact by the massive planet that crashed into it, forming the Moon, life on Mars could have gotten started early.

But how could we actually be related? The idea of Panspermia says that life could travel naturally from world to world in the Solar System, purely through the asteroid strikes that were regularly pounding everything in the early days.

Imagine an asteroid smashing into a world like Mars. In the lower gravity of Mars, debris from the impact could be launched into an escape trajectory, free to travel through the Solar System.

We know that bacteria can survive almost indefinitely, freeze dried, and protected from radiation within chunks of space rock. So it’s possible they could make the journey from Mars to Earth, crossing the orbit of our planet.

Even more amazingly, the meteorites that enter the Earth’s atmosphere would protect some of the bacterial inhabitants inside. As the Earth’s atmosphere is thick enough to slow down the descent of the space rocks, the tiny bacterialnauts could survive the entire journey from Mars, through space, to Earth.

In February 2013, asteroid DA 2014 safely passed by the Earth. There are several proposals abounding about bringing asteroids closer to our planet to better examine their structure. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

If we do find life on Mars, how will we know it’s actually related to us? If Martian life has the similar DNA structure to Earth life, it’s probably related. In fact, we could probably trace the life back to determine the common ancestor, and even figure out when the tiny lifeforms make the journey.

If we do find life on Mars, which is related to us, that just means that life got around the Solar System. It doesn’t help us answer the bigger question about whether there’s life in the larger Universe. In fact, until we actually get a probe out to nearby stars, or receive signals from them, we might never know.

An even more amazing possibility is that it’s not related. That life on Mars arose completely independently. One clue that scientists will be looking for is the way the Martian life’s instructions are encoded. Here on Earth, all life follows “left-handed chirality” for the amino acid building blocks that make up DNA and RNA. But if right-handed amino acids are being used by Martian life, that would mean a completely independent origin of life.

Of course, if the life doesn’t use amino acids or DNA at all, then all bets are off. It’ll be truly alien, using a chemistry that we don’t understand at all.

There are many who believe that Mars isn’t the best place in the Solar System to search for life, that there are other places, like Europa or Enceladus, where there’s a vast amount of liquid water to be explored.

But Mars is close, it’s got a surface you can land on. We know there’s liquid water beneath the surface, and there was water there for a long time in the past. We’ve got the rovers, orbiters and landers on the planet and in the works to get to the bottom of this question. It’s an exciting time to be part of this search.

‘Walk on Mars’ with Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin at Limited Engagement ‘Destination Mars’ Holographic Exhibit at KSC Visitor Complex

A scene from ‘Destination Mars’ of Buzz Aldrin and  NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover with the Gale crater rim in the distance. The new, limited time interactive exhibit is now showing at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida through Jan 1, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL/Microsoft
A scene from ‘Destination Mars’ of Buzz Aldrin and NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover with the Gale crater rim in the distance. The new, limited time interactive exhibit is now showing at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida through Jan 1, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL/Microsoft

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER VISITOR COMPLEX, FL- Think a Holodeck adventure on Star Trek guided by real life Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin and you’ll get a really good idea of what’s in store for you as you explore the surface of Mars like never before in the immersive new ‘Destination Mars’ interactive holographic exhibit opening to the public today, Monday, Sept.19, at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida.

The new Red Planet exhibit was formally opened for business during a very special ribbon cutting ceremony featuring Buzz Aldrin as the star attraction – deftly maneuvering the huge ceremonial scissors during an in depth media preview and briefing on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016, including Universe Today.

The fabulous new ‘Destination Mars’ limited engagement exhibit magically transports you to the surface of the Red Planet via Microsoft HoloLens technology.

It literally allows you to ‘Walk on Mars’ using real imagery taken by NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover and explore the alien terrain, just like real life scientists on a geology research expedition.

A ceremonial ribbon is cut for the opening of new "Destination: Mars" experience at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida during media preview on Sept. 18, 2016. From the left are Therrin Protze, chief operating officer of the visitor complex; center director Bob Cabana; Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin; Kudo Tsunoda of Microsoft; and Jeff Norris of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A ceremonial ribbon is cut for the opening of new “Destination: Mars” experience at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida during media preview on Sept. 18, 2016. From the left are Therrin Protze, chief operating officer of the visitor complex; center director Bob Cabana; Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin; Kudo Tsunoda of Microsoft; and Jeff Norris of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“Technology like HoloLens leads us once again toward exploration,” Aldrin said during the Sept. 18 media preview. “It’s my hope that experiences like “Destination: Mars” will continue to inspire us to explore.”

Destination Mars was jointly developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory – which manages the Curiosity rover mission for NASA – and Microsoft HoloLens.

A ceremonial ribbon is cut for the opening of new "Destination: Mars" experience at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida during media preview on Sept. 18, 2016. From the left are Therrin Protze, chief operating officer of the visitor complex; center director Bob Cabana; Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin; Kudo Tsunoda of Microsoft; and Jeff Norris of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Credit: Dawn Taylor Leek
A ceremonial ribbon is cut for the opening of new “Destination: Mars” experience at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida during media preview on Sept. 18, 2016. From the left are Therrin Protze, chief operating officer of the visitor complex; center director Bob Cabana; Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin; Kudo Tsunoda of Microsoft; and Jeff Norris of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Credit: Dawn Taylor Leek

Buzz was ably assisted at the grand ribbon cutting ceremony by Bob Cabana, former shuttle commander and current Kennedy Space Center Director, Therrin Protze, chief operating officer of the visitor complex, Kudo Tsunoda of Microsoft, and Jeff Norris of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The experience is housed in a pop-up theater that only runs for the next three and a half months, until New Years Day, January 1, 2017.

Before entering the theater, you will be fitted with specially adjusted HoloLens headsets individually tailored to your eyes.

The entire ‘Destination Mars’ experience only lasts barely 8 minutes.
So, if you are lucky enough to get a ticket inside you’ll need to take advantage of every precious second to scan around from left and right and back, and top to bottom. Be sure to check out Mount Sharp and the rim of Gale Crater.

You’ll even be able to find a real drill hole that Curiosity bored into the Red Planet at Yellowknife Bay about six months after the nailbiting landing in August 2012.

During your experience you will be guided by Buzz and Curiosity rover driver Erisa Hines of JPL. They will lead you to areas of Mars where the science team has made many breakthrough discoveries such as that liquid water once flowed on the floor of Curiosity’s Gale Crater landing site.

Curiosity rover driver Erisa Hines and Jeff Norris of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the grand opening for Destination Mars at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida on Sept. 18, 2016. Credit Julian Leek
Curiosity rover driver Erisa Hines and Jeff Norris of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the grand opening for Destination Mars at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida on Sept. 18, 2016. Credit Julian Leek

The scenes come to life based on imagery combining the Mastcam color cameras and the black and white navcam cameras, Jeff Norris of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, told Universe Today in an interview.

Among the surface features visited is Yellowknife Bay where Curiosity conducted the first interplanetary drilling and sampling on another planet in our Solar System. The sample were subsequently fed to and analyzed by the pair of miniaturized chemistry labs – SAM and CheMin – inside the rovers belly.

They also guide viewers to “a tantalizing glimpse of a future Martian colony.”

“The technology that accomplishes this is called “mixed reality,” where virtual elements are merged with the user’s actual environment, creating a world in which real and virtual objects can interact, “ according to a NASA description.

“The public experience developed out of a JPL-designed tool called OnSight. Using the HoloLens headset, scientists across the world can explore geographic features on Mars and even plan future routes for the Curiosity rover.”

Curiosity is currently exploring the spectacular looking buttes in the Murray Buttes region in lower Mount Sharp. Read my recent update here.

A scene from ‘Destination Mars’ of Erisa Hines and  NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover with Mount Sharp Gale crater rim in the distance. The new, limited time interactive exhibit is now showing at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida through Jan 1, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL/Microsoft
A scene from ‘Destination Mars’ of Erisa Hines and NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover with Mount Sharp Gale crater rim in the distance. The new, limited time interactive exhibit is now showing at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida through Jan 1, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL/Microsoft

Be sure to pay attention or your discovery walk on Mars will be over before you know it. Personally, as a Mars lover and Mars mosaic maker I was thrilled by the 3 D reality and I was ready for more.

Curiosity accomplished Historic 1st drilling into Martian rock at John Klein outcrop on Feb 8, 2013 (Sol 182) and discovered a habitable zone, shown in this context mosaic view of the Yellowknife Bay basin taken on Jan. 26 (Sol 169). The robotic arm is pressing down on the surface at John Klein outcrop of veined hydrated minerals – dramatically back dropped with her ultimate destination; Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
Curiosity accomplished Historic 1st drilling into Martian rock at John Klein outcrop on Feb 8, 2013 (Sol 182) and discovered a habitable zone, shown in this context mosaic view of the Yellowknife Bay basin taken on Jan. 26 (Sol 169). The robotic arm is pressing down on the surface at John Klein outcrop of veined hydrated minerals – dramatically back dropped with her ultimate destination; Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

This limited availability, timed experience is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Reservations must be made the day of your visite at the Destination: Mars reservation counter, says the KSC Visitor Complex (KSCVC).

You can get more information or book a visit to Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, by clicking on the website link:

https://www.kennedyspacecenter.com/things-to-do/destination-mars.aspx

Be sure to visit this spectacular holographic exhibit before it closes on New Year’s Day 2017 because it is only showing at KSCVC.

There are no plans to book it at other venues, Norris told me.

Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin describes newly opened ‘Destination Mars’ holographic experience during media preview at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida on Sept. 18, 2016.
Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin describes newly opened ‘Destination Mars’ holographic experience during media preview at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida on Sept. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

As of today, Sol 1465, September 19, 2016, Curiosity has driven over 7.9 miles (12.7 kilometers) since its August 2012 landing inside Gale Crater, and taken over 354,000 amazing images.

Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin during media preview of newly opened ‘Destination Mars’ holographic experience at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida on Sept. 18, 2016.  Credit Julian Leek
Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin during media preview of newly opened ‘Destination Mars’ holographic experience at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida on Sept. 18, 2016. Credit Julian Leek

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Inside the Destination Mars exhibit area, Ken Kremer of Universe Today is fitted with the Microsoft HoloLens gear. Credit Julian Leek
Inside the Destination Mars exhibit area, Ken Kremer of Universe Today is fitted with the Microsoft HoloLens headset gear. Credit Julian Leek

Curiosity Discovers Ancient Mars Lake Could Support Life

NASA’s Curiosity rover has discovered evidence that an ancient Martian lake had the right chemical ingredients that could have sustained microbial life forms for long periods of time – and that these habitable conditions persisted on the Red Planet until a more recent epoch than previously thought.

Furthermore researchers have developed a novel technique allowing Curiosity to accurately date Martian rocks for the first time ever – rather than having to rely on educated guesses based on counting craters.

All that and more stems from science results just announced by members of the rover science team.

Researchers outlined their remarkable findings in a series of six new scientific papers published today (Dec. 9) in the highly respected journal Science and at talks held today at the Fall 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco.

The Curiosity team also revealed that an investigation of natural Martian erosion processes could be used to direct the rover to spots with a higher likelihood of holding preserved evidence for the building blocks of past life – if it ever existed.

View of Yellowknife Bay Formation, with Drilling Sites. This mosaic of images from Curiosity's Mast Camera (Mastcam) shows geological members of the Yellowknife Bay formation, and the sites where Curiosity drilled into the lowest-lying member, called Sheepbed, at targets "John Klein" and "Cumberland." The scene has the Sheepbed mudstone in the foreground and rises up through Gillespie Lake member to the Point Lake outcrop. These rocks record superimposed ancient lake and stream deposits that offered past environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. Rocks here were exposed about 70 million years ago by removal of overlying layers due to erosion by the wind. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
View of Yellowknife Bay Formation, with Drilling Sites
This mosaic of images from Curiosity’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) shows geological members of the Yellowknife Bay formation, and the sites where Curiosity drilled into the lowest-lying member, called Sheepbed, at targets “John Klein” and “Cumberland.” The scene has the Sheepbed mudstone in the foreground and rises up through Gillespie Lake member to the Point Lake outcrop. These rocks record superimposed ancient lake and stream deposits that offered past environmental conditions favorable for microbial life. Rocks here were exposed about 70 million years ago by removal of overlying layers due to erosion by the wind. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The ancient fresh water lake at the Yellowknife Bay area inside the Gale Crater landing site explored earlier this year by Curiosity existed for periods spanning perhaps millions to tens of millions of years in length – before eventually evaporating completely after Mars lost its thick atmosphere.

Furthermore the lake may have existed until as recently as 3.7 Billion years ago, much later than researchers expected which means that life had a longer and better chance of gaining a foothold on the Red Planet before it was transformed into its current cold, arid state.

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity took this self-portrait, composed of more than 50 images using its robotic arm-mounted MAHLI camera, on Feb. 3. The image shows Curiosity at the John Klein drill site. A drill hole is visible at bottom left.  Credit: NASA / JPL / MSSS / Marco Di Lorenzo / Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity took this self-portrait, composed of more than 50 images using its robotic arm-mounted MAHLI camera, on Feb. 3. The image shows Curiosity at the John Klein drill site. A drill hole is visible at bottom left. Credit: NASA / JPL / MSSS / Marco Di Lorenzo / Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Researchers also announced that they are shifting the missions focus from searching for habitable environments to searching for organic molecules – the building blocks of all life as we know it.

Why the shift? Because the team believes they have found a way to increase the chance of finding organics preserved in the sedimentary rock layers.

“Really what we’re doing is turning the corner from a mission that is dedicated to the search for habitable environments to a mission that is now dedicated to the search for that subset of habitable environments which also preserves organic carbon,” Curiosity Principal Investigator John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, said at an AGU press conference today.

“That’s the step we need to take as we explore for evidence of life on Mars.”

Earlier this year, Curiosity drilled into a pair of sedimentary Martian mudstone rock outcrops at Yellowknife Bay known as “John Klein” and “Cumberland” – for the first time in history.

Grotzinger said the ancient lake at Yellowknife Bay was likely about 30 miles long and 3 miles wide.

Powdered samples deposited into the rovers miniaturized chemistry labs – SAM and CheMin – revealed the presence of significant levels of phyllosilicate clay minerals.

These clay minerals form in neutral pH water that is ‘drinkable” and conducive to the formation of life.

“Curiosity discovered that the fine-grained sedimentary rocks preserve evidence of an environment that would have been suited to support a Martian biosphere founded on chemolithoautotrophy,” according to one of the science papers co-authored by Grotzinger.

“This aqueous environment was characterized by neutral pH, low salinity, and variable redox states of both iron and sulfur species.”

The rover has detected key elements required for life including carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sulfur nitrogen and phosphorous.

The team is still looking for signatures of organic molecules.

Right now the researchers are driving Curiosity along a 6 mile path to the base of Mount Sharp -the primary mission destination – which they hope to reach sometime in Spring 2014.

But along the way they hope to stop at a spot where wind has eroded the sedimentary rocks just recently enough to expose an area that may still preserve evidence for organic molecules – since it hasn’t been bombarded by destructive cosmic radiation for billions of years.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Curiosity, Chang’e 3, LADEE, MAVEN and MOM news.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Curiosity, Orion, MAVEN, MOM, Mars rovers, Chang’e 3, SpaceX, and more at Ken’s upcoming presentations

Dec 10: “Antares ISS Launch from Virginia, Mars and SpaceX Mission Update”, Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, 8 PM

Dec 11: “Curiosity, MAVEN and the Search for Life on Mars”, “LADEE & Antares ISS Launches from Virginia”, Rittenhouse Astronomical Society, Franklin Institute, Phila, PA, 8 PM