Though today’s NASA Mars Curiosity rover announcement wasn’t about extraterrestrial life, scientists were excited to share that soil analysis from the red planet has revealed interesting results.
An analytical laboratory inside the rover’s arm determined that soil samples from "Rocknest" inside the Gale Crater contained high levels of water, salts, sulfur and chlorine-containing substances. This evidence shows that there is an even higher possibility that there was water once on the planet.
"We have no definitive detection of Martian organics at this point, but we will keep looking in the diverse environments of Gale Crater," said SAM Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
What makes scientists so excited about this discovery is that water is known to be an essential ingredient for life, according to Dr. Nilton O. Renno, a professor of atmospheric, oceanic and space science at the University of Michigan. Renno was previously involved with the prior Mars rover mission, Phoenix.
"Everywhere we have water, we have bacteria," Renno said. "If you are going to look for life on another planet, the first thing you have to do is look for water."
Renno explained that the Martian soil contained high levels of volatiles, which turn into water vapor, chlorine and oxygen that are released from the soil when it is heated. The levels of salts found also suggested that there was more water on the planet once than scientists initially suspected.
Previous orbiters have shown evidence that there was water on Mars that may have placed a role in forming local features. Coupled with today’s announcement, it makes it more likely that there was a stream once in the place where the rover landed.
"The more we look at Mars, the more interesting it gets to be," he said.
WHY WE WON’T KNOW IF WE FOUND LIFE ON MARS RIGHT AWAY
Curiosity’s main mission is to study whether the red planet is habitable, and most of the tools on the rover -- including the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite and the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument used to determine today’s findings -- are there to help reach that goal. It’s not really equipped to find extra terrestrial life, but rather to see if the Red Planet could support life, Renno explained.
There’s also a high possibility that any bacteria found by or on the machine could have come from our own planet. Renno said that it could take quite some time to analyze anything found so see if it is extraterrestrial, meaning we won’t probably get the results while the rover is still on Mars.
"We really have to be sure that anything we found is not contamination from things we took from Earth," Renno said. "We want to be sure what we find is something from Mars, and we clearly understand what we find in the data."