This image released by NASA shows the Curiosity rover holding a scoop of powdered rock on Mars. The rover recently drilled into a Martian rock for the first time and transferred a pinch of powder to its instruments to analyze the chemical makeup.
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL (Florida Today/USA TODAY) - The first rock sample collected by NASA's Curiosity rover shows ancient Mars could have harbored primitive life forms, agency officials and scientists said on Tuesday.
All of the key chemical ingredients for life - including sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorous and, importantly, carbon - were detected in a sample drilled inside Gale Crater, the site where the rover landed last August.
"A fundamental question for this mission is whether Mars could have supported a habitable environment," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program. "From what we know now, the answer is yes."
Curiosity was launched in November 2011 aboard an Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The rover landed August 6, 2012 inside Gale Crater on Mars in a dramatic seven minute rocket-deployed landing and quickly found evidence of past water flow inside the crater.
Over the last seven months, the rover has rolled to a rocky outcrop nicknamed "Yellowknife Bay" by mission scientists, where they drilled into the bedrock, first discovering a gray "mudstone" clay underneath the rusty dust carpeting Mars.
"Now we know from ground truth chemical measurements that mudstone containing clays provided an environment that is not extremely harsh, consistent with, for example, microbial life at some time," says University of California, Berkeley, biochemist Richard Mathies, who was not part of the mission. "This is a strong argument for NASA to push for flying higher capability instruments that actually do have the capability and sensitivity needed to search for the presence of life on Mars."
For now, the rover will continue probing the rock outcrop, moving on to similar settings that might yield evidence of even more complex chemicals that may hint at ancient biochemistry.
Mission chief scientist John Grotzinger of Caltech pointed to microbes on Earth that make a living off of simple chemical reactions with minerals as examples of the kind of life that could have survived in the environment at Gale Crater. They would have thrived, he added, "about the time we first see life preserved on Earth."
The Curiosity rover is essentially a mobile chemistry lab, "not a life detection machine," unable to detect any fossil traces of such ancient microbes, noted mission scientist Paul Mahaffy of NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Md., at the briefing. NASA's next Mars lander planned for 2020 will likely need to have such a capability, Mathies suggested, as a result of the new findings.
Mount Sharp, or Aeolis Mons, an 18,000-foot-high mountain in the center of the crater, remains the ultimate destination of the rover. The mountain is ringed with clay deposits that have been pre-empted to some extent by Tuesday's announced discovery.
"We now have food to imagine a very different Mars than the one we see today," says former astronaut John Grunsfeld, NASA's deputy administrator, pointing to the possibilities of lakes and snow-capped mountains once dotting the now-desert planet. "It makes me want to go," he said.
"I'll go, John," replied Grotzinger. "Just bring me back."
NASA's Curiosity rover is designed to operate on Mars for at least two years. Mission cost: $2.5 billion.